“Managers Can Only Influence, Not Enforce”

A founder shared with me a fascinating management philosophy, which I’m not going to implement as is, but is worth considering:

In his company, managers can also persuade, but each person has ultimate authority over what they choose to work on, and how, and they can ignore what their manager is telling them. Managers can enforce their view only in the following cases:

  • Ethical matters.
  • Things that require coordination like having a meeting, which can’t happen if different people want to meet at different times.
  • Decisions that have a long-term implication.

But if someone is making a decision that has only short-term implications, managers can’t overrule them.

I asked the founder, Say we decide to build and launch an Alexa skill in the next month. The engineer working on it is going in a direction I know won’t work, but he doesn’t agree with me when I try to persuade him. Can I overrule him?” The founder replied, “Let him waste a month in learning. Nobody in the company is here to execute other people’s plans, not even an intern, and not even my plans as the CEO.” I then said, “If I’m the CTO and can’t enforce things, I can’t take responsibility for timelines.” He replied, “That’s fine.”

He said this management style is very inefficient in the short-term, but very efficient in the long-term.

People early in their career can be classified into three levels:

  • Level 1: Not good at teamwork.
  • Level 2: Effective team member, but with constant direction from their manager.
  • Level 3: Manager of one.

This management philosophy tries to get people to level 3 as soon as possible, if necessary by sacrificing some productivity in the initial year or so.

By contrast, the traditional approach of managers taking responsibility for business outcomes and therefore having the authority to enforce their decisions tries to get people to level 2 as soon as possible, but many stagnate there for years. I did so, too. Now that I manage people, I have seen such people be a massive drain on the manager’s time, which is limited and precious.

Looking at it from a different perspective, people are motivated by three things: autonomy, mastery and purpose:

This management style (managers can only influence) maximises autonomy. It also increases learning, because you learn by doing things and making mistakes more than by following instructions. And faster learning leads to mastery. So, this management style increases autonomy and mastery, thus increasing two of the three factors associated with motivation. And that makes all the difference.

In addition to moviation, increasing autonomy also reduces time wasted in coordination.

People join a job with a lot of hope and positivity, but a lot of this drive is lost by the overhead of traditional management, even if we don’t recognise this. And we don’t recognise this as a problem because we can’t quantify the loss, and we think it’s a necessary part of work. But this management philosophy offers an alternative.

When considering investing in a startup, investors ask if the idea could be “huge, if true”. Similarly, this management style could have a huge impact, if it works.

On-demand Leader. Earlier: IIT | Google | Solopreneur | Founder | CTO | Advisor