How Much Rope?

“Culture drives great results.”
Jack Welch 


“Results!  Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results.

I know several thousand things that won’t work.”
Thomas A. Edison

“Success represents the 1% of your work which

results from the 99% that is called failure.”
Soichiro Honda 


Back in the 1950’s Bell Labs began employing social scientists and engineers to study ways to make telephones easier to use.  A well-educated and modest man from South Africa named John E. Karlin provided the leadership for this work done at Bell.  His department spawned the discipline of human factors engineering, which focuses on the interaction between people and machines that we now commonly refer to as ergonomics.

One of the studies Mr. Karlin’s staff conducted had to do with the length of telephone cords (back when they had them).  To determine the optimal length, Mr. Karlin instructed his staff to sneak into coworkers’ offices every three days and trim an inch from the cords on their phones.  Over time, no one noticed the change in their phone cords until they were a full foot shorter.  At that point, Karlin’s guinea pigs realized their limited ability to move around while using their phones.  That little experiment set the parameters for comfortable use of the corded-telephone and led to shorter cords on the telephones Bell produced for the public.  Today, we all know the freedom cordless phones provide us.  They allow free movement and the ability to multi-task as we communicate with others.

What’s a Comfortable Length of Rope?

When I read that story about the phone cords, it got me thinking about the amount of latitude managers give their workers to do their jobs.  The ability to gauge an employee’s capabilities and allow them to work within them is an important management skill.  In other words, how much rope do you give them?  Another facet of that skill is the ability to allow individuals to stretch themselves by giving them projects that take them outside their comfort zones and expand their capabilities; knowing how much rope to reel out so they can have some autonomy while not going completely off the reservation.  It’s a push-pull of comfort and trust.

 There are points along the way where some managers struggle with whose level of comfort is more important, theirs or their employees’.  Some sneak in and trim a few inches off the rope that represents their employees’ autonomy.  Often, it’s when a great deal is at stake and an undesirable outcome could occur.  For some managers, their fear of a subordinate’s failure has more to do with their concern about how it will reflect on their own reputation rather than out of concern for the employee.  They hold a short rein and feel better while the employee feels micro-managed.  It’s also possible to become too comfortable and adopt a laissez-faire management style, which can leave the employee to underperform due to lack accountability or unclear expectations.


Strong leadership incorporates good training, setting clear expectations and trust, allowing people to approach their duties in their own ways.  For some managers, however, this will take them out of their own comfort zones because they become concerned with the possibility that employees might fail.  Well, Newsflash…they might. 

Everybody’s Been There 

Every manager has experienced failure.  They probably clearly remember a few of them.  Their manager’s style at that time probably has a lot to do with how they cope with the potential of failure, their own and by those who work for them.  I’ve written in the past how failures can be opportunities to learn what doesn’t work or what not to do.  (Click here to read about Teachable Moments).  Those opportunities require a confident leader to use them to promote employee growth.  One who has failed and been allowed to live to tell about it.


Pressing on in the face of failure builds perseverance but not if failure is feared or frowned upon.  Good managers pass along good management skills to their employees.  They provide opportunities and trust budding managers and employees in their ranks.  Fearful managers pass along their fear.  They foster risk-averse environments and employees and hinder growth and risk-taking. 

 Have a Little Faith 

Good process usually yields good outcomes.  However, while expectations should be laid out and goals must be set and revisited periodically, the process need not be as buttoned-down as the expectations.  The focus should be on creating a process that yields a desired outcome while allowing employees some autonomy in how they reach their goals.  Results arrived at in this way promote growth.  Growth (personal and professional) is always of a higher quality when it results from broad learning that allows for the possibility of failure.  Things don’t always work out.  We learn to surmount obstacles when faced with having to deal with them, not by having them removed from our path.


Managers should manage their people and work with them to learn to manage their own processes.  Autonomy is essential to growth and failure is always a potential outcome.  Fear of failure can be crippling especially when managers exhibit it in relation to their own reputations.  No manager is effective when he or she tries to control every move of the people that report to him or her.  Effective leaders exhibit confidence and are selfless in managing others.


Next time you give assignments to your employees, set good expectations and, if you’re going to cut anything, cut ‘em some slack. 


Here to serve,


John Duba

Next month:  Driver’s Ed

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