Are you a back seat driver?

I’m staying with my sister and brother in law for a few days which means that for once, I am not doing the driving. It wasn’t until I got in the car sitting behind Alec that I remembered what a terrible passenger I am. I found myself looking over his shoulder, focusing intently on the road and the traffic, the voice in my head saying things like:

“I hope he’s seen that traffic build up ahead……

Alec, show me a sign that you have seen the brake lights going on……..


Oh thank god………… you’re braking………..

You brake a lot later than I do………”

Alec is a very competent driver; he just drives differently from me. It doesn’t matter whether I am with the best driver in the world, I find it difficult to hand over control. I have a burning desire to see signs that re-assure me that the driver is aware of any hazards and is ready to take action.

It can be a similar experience for managers who need to take a step back and let staff perform at their best and deliver the desired results, their own way. If you don’t, you’ll only make yourself nervous and create anxiety in them too.

I had a number of choices today. I could have continued to be hyper-vigilant, anxious and sweaty palmed and not say anything. I could have done what I’ve done in the past and told my brother in law I was feeling anxious and asked him to slow down, leave more space between cars etc., or I could do what I did which was to sit back and take in the scenery or focus my energy on something more productive like dealing with my emails.

As a manager, once you have allocated work, agreed deadlines, standards, reporting guidelines and everything else you need to put in place, how do you stop yourself being a back seat driver and hovering over the shoulder of your staff?

11 Responses to Are you a back seat driver?

  • Julie,

    One of the ways that I like to learn about leaders in my organization is to give them room to breath and make their own decisions. However, I also want to evaluate the person to find out a few things. How do they think through the issues? Are they maintaining the organizational values? Are they putting out fires, building new ones? I think we should not be backseat drivers but we must be backseat evaluators.

    I want to correct when necessary and celebrate when I can. The only way I can do this is to verify, trust, verify and trust. Hopefully, my diligence in being a good evaluator, coach and leader will give the people around my the room to breath and the room to express themselves. As they become stronger leaders, I can give more responsibility. If they do not progress as I would like, I should have enough information on how they act, think and do. This will give me the opportunity to work with them to be successful.

    Dave Sena

  • Very good example!

    I quite like to be in control. Which is why I prefer myself being the driver. However, passengers always have second opinions and what they don’t know is that they actually affect the concentration of the driver. Hence, no matter how good the driver is, he/she can be distracted if people start interfering his/her decisions.

    I was once told by someone that a good manager is someone who teach you everything he/she knows. By doing that, they will be able to progress to work other things without having the responsibility to look after everything.

  • you have got a great way of veiwing things and i hope you can change alot of lives maybe save some people from a lot of hardship. do you ever sing the song you hate the most. thank you for caring enuff to post such a cool articule

  • Hi Julie,

    Very nice post, I liked the fact that you recognised what you were doing and made a conscious decision to do something more productive.
    For me personally, my view of the car situation and leadership situation are different to yours, therefore my reactions differ.

    In the car, I just relax knowing that, it is out of my control. If it is out of my control, it is pointless and a waste of my energy to worry, so I just let it go. If the worst happens, it happens, c’est la vie.

    In the leadership situation, my view is that people need to feel valued and trusted, and need opportunities to learn and grow. Micro-management stifles all these aspirations and over time will make people feel resentful (or other negative emotion), so their productivty reduces (not just on the task in hand, but daily).
    Here I think to myself “What’s the worst that could happen?”
    As long as I employ the Situational Leadership model (as alluded to by Miklos) and correctly diagnose the person’s development level (even better is a short discussion with the person to confirm) and apply the correct degree of direction & support for that person in that situation, and as long as the task is being performed safely (if not, immediate intervention is necessary) the worst thing will be some degree of financial loss for the company.
    It won’t be the end of the world, the company won’t go bust because of just one mistake.
    But the person will learn from the mistake. It will be his/her mistake, so they will “own” it. It’s unlikely they will ever repeat it. If you give them too much direction, they will learn very little.
    And if it goes wrong, it will have been your mistake. Because you were controlling the task, you will own it. (I actually believe “controlling” has negative connotations)
    And if the mistake is made, not only is there the same financial cost to the company, but precious little learning has resulted, and you have spent your own time unproductively as well.
    And next time that situation arises, if you are not there, that person may make the same or a similar mistake.
    So, overall, many times the Waste.

  • Julie, I have always felt it is important to hire competent staff and then trust them to do the job they were hired to do. Granted I’m coming from a nonprofit standpoint, but the concept is still the same. I have worked with leaders, managers, etc. who are notorious backseat drivers. I’m a strong believer in shared leadership where team members are allowed to participate in decision making while taking ownership of their piece of the project or workflow. It really comes down to a matter of trust; trusting you’ve hired the right people and trusting them to do their best.

  • Hi Julie,

    Your story is highly recognizeable. What often works for me is to envisage scenarios: imagine the possibilities of things that can go wrong and search for signals that are indications for things getting out of hand. It gives me a comfortable distance to the working process, while still being in control on important issues. And I don’t have to force myself to not being a control freak (which is negative energy; instead, I put it to good use).

    • Thanks Fred. I particularly like what you say about putting potentially negative energy to good use.

      Your ability to visualise potential roadblocks to success also ensures that at the outset, you and your team member have explored those as far as possible, done what you can to reduce the risk, and clarified the important issues you would need to be made aware of.

      Thanks for contributing.

  • Dear Julie, I have often the feeling that the – perhaps – most important step leading to effective delegation is mostly ignored. It’s the right choice of the people for your team. And, of course, then come the phase to make them a team (structurall and professionally) that they are working like a Swiss clock (OK, that’s true for the status quo jobs, e.g. In finance, in more complicated – e. g. creative – areas the follow-up functioning is more complicated). For 20 years as top finance guy in local subsidiaries of several multinationals the right choice was the first step and only then comes in importance the development of the team. If these two elements are done right, you have a solid basis to trust your team this being the basis of delegation. Then, of course, you should be there for mentoring, coaching, monitoring, supporting, controlling, fine-tuning, but at the end of the day, that’s what the leader (if the boss lives up to and merits to be called so) is normally doing…

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