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How can you get your team to take on more responsibility?

This post lists the key insights from this article, from Mathias Meyer, CTO at GetReaction, and previous CEO of Travis CI.


A question that you may have come across frequently is why a team is not doing what their manager expects them to do. The flip side of this question could be phrased as:

“How can I remove myself from all the discussions I’m constantly being pulled in?”

“Expectations” Doesn’t Mean Giving Orders

Inexperienced leaders tend to be hesitant setting expectations. I’ve heard reasons like “servant leadership,” or “I want to give my team enough freedom without setting boundaries,” to “I don’t want to give my team orders on what they should do.”

All these are reasonable things to consider as you’re working out a set of expectations for your team. Setting expectations the wrong way can make your team feel like you’re micro-managing them.

Good expectations focus on context and outcomes

Expectations don’t have be set that way. Good expectations focus on providing:

  • Context: everything a team needs to know to meet the expectations.
  • Frameworks: tools they can use – meetings, decision making processes, etc.
  • Outcomes: clear goals for what your team should achieve

You can set expectations and also ask your team to give you feedback on them, to agree on them, or to develop their own expectations and frameworks. In the last case, your expectation can simply be for them to develop their own approach.

Teams can be blocked without clear expectations

When you’re not seeing your team take the initiative and meet your expectations, it’s possible that they’re just waiting for you or someone to either provide them with the answer, or to give them the opportunity to step in.

They may not have known who can make a certain decision, where they can discuss a certain topic, or that you want them to make a decision in the first place.

They might be blocked without knowing it. The surprising effect of setting clear expectations can be that your team is suddenly unblocked and can move forward.

Expectations help grow new leaders

There’s another benefit from setting clear expectations for your team and then letting them take the lead. It’s an opportunity for folks from your team to step up and lead projects, working groups, or meetings. This allows engineers to improve on skills that aren’t associated with writing code but that may become more relevant as they grow more senior.

Setting expectations helps you scale

Delegating more work to your team has a benefit for you as their manager too. Instead of always bringing them the answers, you step out of a cycle. That gives you more time to focus on other things.

It takes guts and practice to say “Y’all can do this without me. I trust you with this.” But there’s something incredibly freeing about it too.

Setting clear expectations is a leadership skill

You’ll be focused on work where your time is spent with the highest leverage, the highest impact on your team. Setting expectations and letting teams lead areas and make decisions on their own is part of this work.

Note that this isn’t quite the same as “getting out of the way.” It’s getting out of the way by setting a clear focus on what your team should focus on and giving them the tools to achieve a good outcome.

3 min​ read

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