How a leader defines “let” can nurture or hinder growth

“We’re going to need to let that hem out again.”

This is something my mom would say when she realized my pants were getting too short. She was a gifted seamstress (a talent I surely did not appreciate at the time). I realize, in retrospect, that her talent also helped the family bottom line, because it enabled her to stretch the life of my clothes out as I grew. 

I heard the term “let” used in two different ways recently. They weren’t about making someone’s pants last longer, but they were related to professional growth.

When “let” conveys power

I edit a newsletter about local government. One of our features is “recognitions and transitions.” Recently, I was sharing a remembrance of Rodger Worthen, a city administrator who had died. The city attorney of Riverdale, Utah, where Worthen had served, said this about him: “He let us do our jobs. He encouraged us.”

I had the impression from reading about Worthen’s service that his approach of “letting” people do their jobs wasn’t an abandonment. It was an acknowledgment of how much people can do in an effective organizational culture with support that equips them but does not smother them.

When “let” shuts people down

I was speaking with a young professional friend recently. Her work is cyclical. She and her colleagues are in the middle of one of the busiest points in the cycle right now. Communication with her supervisor is not clear. The supervisor, feeling under pressure and out of time, will say things to my friend such as, “I’ll just let you make these copies for me.”

Of course, there are times when we all have to pitch in and take care of duties that would possibly be done by someone in a more entry level position than ours, but my friend is not new to the organization, exceeds the education level her job calls for and is brimming with potential and ambition. 

There’s a difference between, “We are in a crunch and the support staff is not available. Would you please make these copies?” and “I’m going to let you make these copies.”

Anticipating growth requires advance planning

Let’s return to the example of my mom, who hemmed so many pairs of my pants. 

It did help that she was adept at modifying pants so their length kept up with my growth.

However, there’s a step she took long before I grew out of the initial hem, even before she bought (or made) the pants. 

She made sure the hem was deep enough that there would be material available when it was time to rip out the old stitches, release more fabric so the pants would be longer, press the new hem with a hot iron, and sew the new hem into place. 

She wouldn’t have bought (or made) pants that lacked room for growth. 

It should be that way with our people too. We should look for the potential within them early on. Then, as their skills grow and their interest in making a bigger contribution becomes apparent, we should give them the added responsibility they’ve earned. 

We should let them do their jobs.

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