Last Sunday we began a major project at our church: hosting the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement course. As the staff member responsible for overseas ministries of the church, the course falls under my area of responsibility. Just a few minutes before the class started, one of our church staff directors asked me a question about a detail of the course, (ok, to be fair it was a big detail). I’m proud to say that I had no idea what the answer was. He was stunned.
I was practicing the principle of active neglect. I had no doubt in my mind that there was an answer to his question and who had the answer. The Perspectives coordinator, Jodi, developed a strong coordinating team that had been preparing for the course for months. She let me know that she had been in the office the day before for six hours (on her day off) to finish the final preparations. Did I ask her to come in on her day off? Before she told me, was I even aware that she came in on her day off? Do I have any idea what exactly she did? All answers are No!
Over the years, I have found that it is deflating to give someone an assignment and remain constantly in the background checking up on them. Yes, initially when someone is learning a new job, they often need extra coaching. However, once you are sure the person knows how to do the task, your role should shift from active coaching to active neglect. I don’t mean to neglect the person that you are leading. You should continue to offer personal encouragement and help; but actively neglect checking on each detail of the project. If you keep asking about details, you are indicating that the person responsible doesn’t have to pay attention to those details because you are on top of them. Soon he or she will stop paying attention to the details because, after all, you have remained in the role of project coordinator. If a detail falls through the cracks, you are as responsible as they are.
It is important to make it clear who has the responsibility for a project. I’ve said numerous times to project coordinators, “I’ve deleted all of the email conversations on this project and am not thinking about it any more.” This is the difference between transfer of the assignment and transfer of the responsibility. My active neglect transfers both the assignment and the responsibility. This is what brought Jodi in on her day off. If a detail was missed, there would be no doubt who missed it.
Even though we had a record 160 in attendance at the Perspectives course, each detail of room set up, registration, speaker care, snacks, etc. was flawless. Jodi and her highly energized coordinating team were on top of everything. On reason is that they were doing their project, not helping me do mine.
Active neglect is important for parenting as well. The last of our four children is a senior in high school. Though we talk every day, my wife and I give no indication that we are paying attention to his schedule, reminding him of his meetings, asking him if he set his alarm to wake up, evaluating each movie he wants to attend, or managing his money. We’re actively neglecting these details so that he learns to totally own them himself. If he makes a mistake by sleeping through an exam, the consequences are small. With the consequence, he learns responsibility for making sure it doesn’t happen again. I think it is important to give all the responsibility to children that they can handle so that they learn while consequences for making mistakes are minor. For more on this topic see this week’s article “Faceoff over Facebook” in The Des Moines Register
As leaders, we need to clarify delegation of both assignments and responsibility. If we only transfer assignments and retain responsibility, we hinder people from developing their own sense of responsibility.