Hold up. Empowering and letting go in the same sentence? Well, this article is about letting go of control, not people! Actually, I think (and hope) that the concept of letting go can help you to retain team members and encourage them to grow.
Let me start off by saying that I strongly believe in individuality and hate generalizations. So please take this article as inspiration rather than a list of magical approaches. My goal is only to share what I’ve learned in my eleven years as a design leader: not only with new managers, team leads, or Heads of Design in early-stage startups but also with experienced leaders seeking to reflect on their leadership approach.
I lead a multidisciplinary design team of 25+ designers and user researchers, including managers. When it comes to leadership advice, one tip I give all of my managers is to start by thinking about priorities, importance, and impact — and, ultimately, to attach those elements to letting go.
Letting go is a mindset shift that requires us to relinquish control and trust our team to do their best work.
Hey, it can be hard to loosen the reins and give your team more autonomy. After all, you want everything to be perfect, right? But here’s the thing — when you give your designers more freedom, you foster a culture of creativity and innovation. By trusting your team and giving them the support they need to take risks and explore new ideas, you’re setting them up for success, in the long game.
Playing the long game
Playing the long game means investing in your team’s growth and development over time. Sure, it can be tempting to focus on short-term goals and immediate results. However, this approach often leads to micromanagement and stems from a lack of trust in your team, hurting you in the long run.
Think of delegation, which is a key tool when it comes to the long game. I’m not simply giving my team more work when I delegate tasks to them, whether it’s “volunteering” them to represent our team in cross-department meetings, or asking them to make final decisions on their own. I don’t do it because I can’t be bothered. I’m trying to empower them to take ownership of their projects, develop new skills, and grow their expertise.
Delegation is a complex art, of course, and I don’t want to go too much into detail here. There are already many great articles full of beautiful diagrams that elaborate on the processes of delegation (like this one or this one). My point is that the mindset of delegating control to others is the first step in letting go.
It can be hard to give up control when you’re not used to it. But it benefits your team members as individuals, equips them with invaluable experience, and creates a more resilient and adaptable team that can tackle complex challenges and deliver high-quality results over the long term.
Building a culture of trust
Another precious outcome of delegation and playing the long game is that it ends up building a culture of trust and respect within your team. When you let go, you encourage a sense of ownership and accountability by showing your team members that you trust them to take on new responsibilities and make decisions.
It can be tough to give into trust, especially if you’re used to micromanaging. To make it work, it’s your job as a leader to set clear expectations, provide support and resources, and give credit where credit is due.
Particularly in product design, ownership is very important! How can a product designer connect with a product their manager has essentially designed instead of them? There’s no doubt that the more ownership a designer feels over a product they’re working on, the more passionate they will be about finding solutions and experimenting with new ideas.
By showing that you trust your team to make the right decisions, you create a culture of openness and collaboration that leads to successful results for everyone.
Learning to give feedback
As a manager, giving feedback can be tricky. You don’t want to come off as overbearing or critical, but you also want to help your team grow and develop.
Instead of micromanaging, I like to focus on providing guidance and asking questions. Rather than saying, “that UX flow makes no sense; do it this way,” I ask the designer to walk me through the logic behind every step. I believe that if you ask enough questions, you will empower individuals to find their own solutions. It’s about proposing ideas, not forcing them.
Note: I feel that I should write a special article just about giving feedback. Would you read it? Let me know, please.
I have seen art directors or design leaders who failed (in my view) to be true mentors. They told their designers what to do to the T, ignoring each individual’s specific approaches and unique skillset. Was the outcome exactly as the art director/leader wanted? Honestly, no, unless they rolled up their sleeves and did it themselves. Did it hurt the team in the long run? Absolutely. The art director ended up frustrated because the design wasn’t exactly how they wanted it (since they didn’t do it with their own two hands), and the designers ended up frustrated because they felt undermined and ignored.
When giving constructive and supportive feedback, I believe it’s better to focus on asking questions that empower your designers to retain ownership of their work. As always — it pays off in the long game.
Overcoming the fear of failure
Let’s face it: failure is scary. As a manager, you feel responsible for the success of a project. But it’s important to embrace a growth mindset and focus on how failure helps your team to learn. After all, failure is a natural part of learning, growing, and the design process itself.
Say a mid-level designer presents a prototype after numerous rounds of critiques and reviews. As a leader with more experience, you may see different approaches you would take, but you run them through your decision-making process (in my case, thinking about priorities, importance, and impact) before deciding to “let go”. Why? You consider the product’s performance, such as generating less MRR and average engagement, realize that only a fraction of users will use it, and consider many other aspects. You then make the call to prioritize the long-term trust and ownership of the designer over your ego and ideal of perfection.
Recognizing this creates a culture of experimentation and innovation that encourages your team to take risks and explore new ideas. It will pay off in the end, trust me.
Striking the right balance
Let me be clear: this is not a tutorial for letting go of all of your responsibilities as a leader. In the end, it’s all about balance. You don’t want to micromanage for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned, but you don’t want to neglect your team either. There are moments when I do need to step in and make changes to a flow, steer the direction of a concept, or make a final decision. As a team leader, that’s also part of my job.
Honestly, it’s taken me quite a while to find the right balance when it comes to letting go — if I’ve found it at all! As I mentioned at the start, I’ve developed an internal decision-making process over time that takes into account priorities, impact, individual team members’ needs, and intuition. (And maybe a bit of magic?)
You may be thinking, “OK, but how do I know when to tell my designer that the visual is not as I want it and when to let go?” or “This UX flow should be different — when to enforce it and when to let go?”. Many techniques should prevent this dilemma, including design critique sessions, reviews, and testing. But there are other times as leaders when we find ourselves in situations where we simply have to make a decision alone.
Well. There is no silver-bullet advice for finding that balance other than experience. Sorry! You also have to fail a few times. But the more you try to step back, trust your team, and let them know you’re there to support them when needed, the better off everyone will be in the long run. Ultimately, t’s only by experimenting that you can find what works best for you.
Doing the math, I’m pretty stoked to see my team members stick around for an average of six years since I joined the company in early 2012. I think this shows that the long-game approach is paying off for me, although there are undoubtedly other factors at play — or maybe they hate me but like to work with each other️️. ❤️
Ready, set…let go!
In conclusion, letting go isn’t always easy, but I believe it’s necessary if you want to create a culture of creativity and trust. Giving your designers more autonomy empowers them to take risks and explore new ideas.
I hope my experience has given you some food for thought. But I’m also curious to hear your thoughts. What has worked for you? How do you let go? Can you even afford that? Is this all obvious and basic? Let me know in the comments below! 🙏🏻
Thank you to our wonderful UX copywriter
for ideas, tips, and editing. I let go!
Oh. And a special thank you to Hugo.