Escape velocity is defined as the speed needed to “break free” from the gravitational attraction of a massive body, without further propulsion, i.e., without spending more fuel. For example, a rocket needs to travel approximately 7 miles per second, or 25,000 miles per hour to escape the earth’s gravitational pull and not fall back to earth nor fall into orbit.
How can a manager know when an employee has reached escape velocity and is no longer in need of additional propulsion to do the job? Situational Leadership, the seminal work of Hersey and Blanchard, describes an employee’s ability to demonstrate independence on the job, through willingness and competency. The four phases of Situational Leadership can help us understand how to ensure an employee reaches escape velocity, and hence is ready for the manager to back away:
Unable and insecure. This employee needs a manager to be there, providing specific direction. This employee will “fall back to earth,” or fail if left alone. This employee may not enjoy “micromanagement,” but needs as much time, direction, and support as the manager can give. An effective manager at this stage could be accused of micromanagement, but would actually be providing the appropriate direction by being abundantly available.
Unable but willing. This employee does not have the skills necessary, so the manager should be providing those skills, tools, and training. Again, this employee needs the manager to be present to provide the resources necessary for a successful launch. The manager at this phase is focusing on enabling the employee with everything necessary for success.
Capable but unwilling. This employee needs motivation to be successful. The manager may or may not need to be present, but the manager needs to create the appropriate environment for the employee to be successful. Rewards and recognition programs, effective feedback, and frequent communication can provide the kind of environment this employee needs to improve willingness and create success.
Very capable and confident. Escape velocity. This employee requires no further external propulsion to successfully complete the task. That doesn’t mean this employee doesn’t require feedback, it just means the employee is functioning under his/her own power. This is the place we hope to get our employees so they experience the most success.
Escape velocity is an interesting way to consider whether or not we are being micromanaged as it begs us to ask ourselves if we have graduated to the final stage of competency in our jobs to operate under our own power. It can also help managers to understand their role in creating opportunities to launch their employees to be successful on their own.