Recently, my wife and I had dinner at one of our favorite local restaurants. We sat at the bar where my wife enjoys watching the cooking action in the open kitchen area. The Executive Chef and his wife own the restaurant; he manages the back-end while she manages the front.

As my wife delighted in the food preparation, I watched how the floor staff worked cohesively to keep a full restaurant fed and happy. It was clear that the co-owner was in charge but her exercise of authority was so subtle it would have been easy to miss. A glance here, a nod of the head there, a quiet word with a smile as she passed a server, she moved around the restaurant with the rest of the staff pitching in and doing whatever was necessary if something immediate caught her eye. She was clearly in charge of things, yet could easily have been mistaken for just one of the staff.

Hers was what I like to call “the quiet exercise of authority”. The management literature is full of expressions that capture this idea like “managing by walking around” and “rolling up you sleeves and pitching in”. The point is, that the best managers know they do not need to remove themselves from the work of their subordinates in order to demonstrate that they are the ones in charge.

Pitching in doesn’t mean micromanaging; in fact, our server told me she especially likes working for her boss because “she is not a micromanager”. Rather it means demonstrating that you grasp the basics — if not the technical knowhow — of what needs doing by your subordinates and that you are willing to occasionally get your own hands dirty so to speak. It generates respect, camaraderie, and a motivational sense of being part of a total team. In the long run, the quiet exercise of authority enhances your credibility as the boss and your ability to exercise the full authority inherent in your position.

A number of years ago, during the heyday of GM’s Saturn Motor Company, I visited their factory in Spring Hill, Tennessee. One element of working there that struck me at the time was the requirement that everybody — top to bottom — had to be certified to do some assembly line job if required. So on bad weather days or during flu season, executives discarded their suits, donned hard hats, jeans, and steel-toed boots, and became car builders for as long as required. On those days, the executives became part of the work not just the overseers.

As I have noted elsewhere, the best managers understand that daily reminders of who is in charge are unnecessary and unwelcome by most subordinates. What I believe is always welcome is the quiet exercise of authority; a practice that reserves blatant displays only for those situations where they are absolutely necessary.

Categories: Managing & Leading, Managing People, Motivating Top Performance

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