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Tips to help your people become more independent

Leaders play a big role in whether their employees become independent thinkers.

5 min read



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For longer than I care to remember, my wife and I have grappled with a parenting challenge that we hadn’t faced in the past. Our 5-year-old, and the youngest of our six children, was acting very much like the baby of the family.

In his self-defined role, he was unwilling to do certain things that his older siblings had mastered at younger ages. Most prominent among his “infractions” was his propensity to wake up in the early morning hours and join us in bed for the duration of the night. Try as we might (with discussions, incentives, framing “big boy” behaviors, etc.) we simply could not get him to remain in his room until morning.

Then, as if out of nowhere, he slept through the night in his bed for an entire week. On top of it, he started to demand the ability to bathe himself without parental presence, let alone assistance. It was as if the “big boy bulb” had gone on in his mind, speeding him along the independence highway to a new set of behaviors and sense of self.

The transition from dependence to independence exists in many arenas, including the workplace. As leaders, we want to quickly help our newly employed or repositioned personnel move from needy and dependent, requiring lots of direction, to confident self-reliant, and thus capable for being delegated to.

Here are some steps that can help expedite the process of making your people more independent.

Avoid micromanaging

It is very common for managers and supervisors to want to ensure that their newest additions feel properly supported. They also want to avoid early mess-ups. So, they micromanage and insist on being involved in every step. While this is understandable, it is also detrimental to the new person’s growth. Find ways to allow them the space to work without constant direction, so that they can spread their wings.

Be willing to let them fail

Jon Brodsky of takes the approach of letting his newly appointed managers fail fast and forward. This does not mean that they get tossed into the deepwater section with the hope they quickly figure out how to swim. Instead, the goal is to give them space and permission (if not encouragement) to fail in controlled, low-stakes ways. This will allow them to learn from the process and start self-correcting. In the long term, this learning will be far more valuable and lasting.

Coach your people through questioning

Instead of rushing in with answers, reflect the questions back and see what ideas and solutions are already in the other person’s head. Then ask, “And what else?” to probe further for more ideas. The goal is to get the coachee to come up with as many answers and possibilities as possible, promoting learning and independence.

Assign a mentor

A mentor is someone who can draw from their experience and know-how to offer meaningful advice and direction for mentees and protégés. The right mentors have been there, done that and can use stories of their experiences to offer direction and clarity. For many new hires, their positions feel like a journey through a garden maze in which it’s oftentimes difficult, if not impossible, to navigate from their ground-level perspective. A good mentor can position himself above the tall shrubs, as it were, and point their protége in the right direction.

Offer (and encourage) opportunities for development

Work with your new hire or teammate to determine learning or skill gaps and offer training opportunities to solve those gaps more quickly. The more skills that people master quickly, and the more that they take ownership for their own learning, the better.

Encourage responsibility

Perhaps the most important thing you can do for new hires or team members is let them know that you expect them to take personal responsibility for their work. In a recent podcast interview with Mike Abrashoff, former commander of the USS Benfold and author of “It’s Your Ship,” tells a story of a serviceman who had greater technical skill than he possessed but still came to the commander for guidance. Abrashoff responded by asking the young man what he would do, told him to do it, and then added, “It’s your ship”.

Make communication two-way

Abrashoff also talked about how he kept communication lines open, so that if others saw something that they thought would improve performance, lower expenses or offer some other benefit, they were encouraged to go up the chain of command and share. This is sound advice for every business. We all learn and perform better when we’re given an element of control and the ability to share what we learn. New hires and team members should be afforded similar opportunities.


Sometimes, the best thing you can do for a new hire is to make yourself inaccessible, just long enough for them to have to work things through independently. While this strategy should be used sparingly, it can be useful to force your people into taking ownership while allowing you to observe how they respond under such circumstances.


Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Check out his leadership book, “Becoming the New Boss.” Read his blog, and listen to his leadership podcast. Download his free new e-book, “An E.P.I.C. Solution to Understaffing.”

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