How to Get out of the Habit of ‘All or Nothing Leadership’

watch-icon April 26, 2021

How to Get out of the Habit of ‘All or Nothing Leadership’

Do you engage in all or nothing leadership? 

I’ve noticed over the last few years while coaching people a tendency for an “all or nothing” approach to managing people. Its curious to me why so many people choose this ‘all or nothing’ thinking position because it feels exhausting when the leader discusses it and I’m just listening. 

Here’s what an all or nothing leadership approach looks like: 

  • I only have 5 minutes to talk or my whole day will be taken up by this issue!“,  
  • If I don’t do it now, it will be a month down the track before it gets done!“,  
  • I don’t have time to spend all my time teaching you to enter one thing into the database“….huh?  

Definitely not logical when you analyse it, but these are the things we say, particularly when we are feeling overwhelmed. Unfortunately, what the other person hears is, “You’re not important enough to spend 5 minutes with, and you’re clearly lazy and stupid because if I let you do it then I’ll be waiting a month when it takes me 5 minutes. I can’t trust you to do your job.”   

That’s a lot of negative messages. If you are trying to disengage your people and create a dependent culture, then have at it and continue your all or nothing approach.  

I was working with an organization a number of years ago, and we talked a lot about the tendency for them to either micromanage or have a complete hands off approach. There was either intense instruction on what to do, or there was no direction whatsoever.  

To help then we started talking about Situational Leadership and having a clearer understanding about what it looks like in practice. Understanding that there is a transition that we make from a new employee requiring a lot of our attention to an experienced employee, that doesn’t require a lot of our attention. Their ‘all or nothing’ approach occurred primarily when a new employee would start. We found that they spent a lot of time with that employee, helping them to understand the organization, the role, the technical information that they were working with, and the technical products that they were working with. They would help them understand how the organization worked. They would provide a high level of detailed instruction on what they needed to do in their job. And then…. Nothing.  They would get to a point with this new employee, where they then took their hands off completely, and walked away from the employee. Of course, the intent behind this was positive and pure.  

But, we are judged on our actions, not our intentions. 

What they were trying to achieve was to allow the staff member to be autonomous and self-accountable, which is absolutely a good quality to have in a leader. However, what they didn’t also do was stay attached to the needs and the successes of the employee. What happening was, a month or two months would go by with limited contact with the employee, and the employees motivation would drop, and their confusion increased as their sense of uncertainty increased.  They began to feel their value to the business had decreased because of the lack of attention from the senior employees. Therefore, the senior employees would look at this new employee who’d been there, four to six months and lament about how their performance has dropped. “They were great when they first started. And now their performance is no longer there.”  

There was this constant pendulum that was swinging between high intensity management when they were new employees to hands off management, when they were perceived as being capable of getting on with the job. After a period of hands off, what would end up happening was a another period of micromanagement because they had noticed that the employee wasn’t doing what they needed to do.  

So what was missing in this situation?  

What was missing is quite simple. It’s what I call “The Check In”. This is not checking up ON someone, but instead a check in WITH someone. It’s a process that shows the employee that you are there for them, if they need you. It opens the door for questions, advice and coaching.  

A simple question will open up conversation and help the employee to see you are there to help, not there to check up on them because you don’t trust that they have completed the work. Here’s a few simple starter “check in” questions: 

  • “How are you going with that work?”  
  • “Tell me about the project that you’re working on right now.”  
  • “I’m curious to understand why you made that decision.”  
  • “I would like to explore that customer interaction with you.”  

Each of these questions will result in a 5-10 minute conversation with your employee. These small interactions, allows you to make sure that they have what they need to get their job done. It gives them an opportunity to open conversation with you, if they’re feeling confused about anything. A good check in is specific and it’s short.  

Sometimes its appropriate for the work that you do to schedule in a longer time (eg 30 minutes weekly) in your diary for a catch up. But a short, unscheduled check in will actually hold more value for you and the person that you’re managing.  It will enable you to get more information and have more genuine contact with your team mate than a one hour scheduled once a fortnight, that has the potential to be cancelled.  

Popping in for a five minute check in between other things, is something that everyone can do.  

Did you just say… hahaha, I wish Michelle, I have no time. I don’t even have time to go to the bathroom. Ok maybe that’s the case and if so… and I was your coach I would question two things.  

  1. Your ability to say no to meetings that aren’t necessary for you to be there.  
  2. Your ability to delegate successfully.  

AND… getting back to that “all or nothing” approach. I’m a big fan of small encounters, particularly small, unscheduled encounters. You’ve no doubt heard the term “walking the floor management”. Honestly, that’s just a fancy way of saying, I’m going to leave my desk, not hide behind my computer, my phone or my busy schedule and speak to the people in my business that are contributing their time, their energy and their skills to the work that I am responsible for delivering.  

If you want to be an “all or nothing” leader, then feel free. It’s your leadership choice after all. If you want to have a bit more efficiency in your day, then investing five minutes here and there in the stuff you think takes 2 hours… may give you more time in your day and more sanity in your brain.  

Having a few five minute conversations with people enables you to get more information about your business, more information about your people, and stay connected to the human beings that are in your business. You will also find that if you are a senior manager that the credibility and trust that you will build with your people in just those small moments outweighs all of the town hall meetings, the team meetings and the official formal emailed communication that you send out.  

Think about all the time, energy and effort that goes into creating those team meetings, creating agendas, creating the minutes from them, thinking up something to talk about, the energy to chair that meeting, and split that out into five minute blocks… I suspect you’ll be quite surprised at how many five minute blocks you can actually get from those lower value engagement activities.  

“All or nothing”, leadership is a way of managing. It’s just not an effective way of managing people.  

I would love to see leaders starting to have shorter and more realistic expectations about the engagement that they actually can do. Too often do I see leaders booking team meetings that go for two hours, once a month, so that they can engage and connect with their people. Unfortunately, that engagement and connection desire that they had, is not achieved in that two hour meeting.  

You don’t have to have an all or nothing approach, sometimes a little bit of something is more than enough. If you are interested in learning more about having more effective check-ins with your people, or its time to engage a coach to keep you accountable and level up your leadership, then please contact us at 

Michelle Holland