Imagine you're taking a road trip with your team. Where would each person sit? Will they stay in their assigned seat throughout the trip, or do they switch seats and help one another out? Who takes responsibility for getting everyone safely to the destination? Who reads the map and navigates the course? And who is just along for the ride, enjoying the view? 

Humor me. The car analogy works here.

Everyone has opportunities to take the wheel at work. In fact, it might help to think of your business as an entire fleet of vehicles. Every time a team member serves as the lead on a project or proposes an idea for your consideration, they are in the driver's seat. When team members advocate for themselves or the team, they've got their hands securely on the wheel. The more often your team has the opportunity to take responsibility and ownership for their performance, the more committed they become to you, the project, and each other.

To make lasting change, meet each team member where they are.

As a leader, you are used to being in the driver's seat -- and you may think that you have to be there at all times. But the truth is that you can't be in the driver's seat all the time. It simply isn't sustainable. If you never teach other people how to drive, who will take the wheel when you go on vacation or get sick? Will they even think to step up, offer new ideas, or take initiative if they never see an opening or are invited to do so? 

To determine the best way to engage your team in their work and entrust them with greater responsibility, you first have to know where they're sitting:

  • Who is sitting in the driver's seat?

Good drivers have their hands securely on the steering wheel. They are aware of the road ahead, the terrain, the weather, and other vehicles. They pay attention to the road signs and driving conditions and take all of these factors into account as they drive the team or project towards their final destination. 

In the workplace, the people in the driver's seat are the ones who take full responsibility for themselves, their actions, and the well-being of the team. They are self-aware and understand their internal landscape and how their emotions, coping skills, and behavior impact others. They have a vision, are mindful of the environment in the workplace, and are tuned in to their colleagues' states of mind. They are leaders or those who demonstrate leadership potential, and they have good or excellent communication skills.

  • Who is sitting in the passenger's seat?

Those in the passenger's seat don't need to be as aware of their surroundings as the driver and don't have to take full responsibility for the safety of everyone in the car. Good passengers help the driver stay on course. They keep the driver from getting distracted and can help manage or support the other passengers along the way. They often serve as a second set of eyes for the driver, especially when navigating unfamiliar terrain or poor road conditions. 

In the workplace, the people in the passenger's seat take full responsibility for themselves and their actions, and they share responsibility for the team's well-being. Like drivers, they are more self-aware than most people; they understand how they function best and the impact of their behavior on others. Passengers tune in to the driver and take an overhead view of the situation, but they also play well with others and are mindful of the group's purpose and performance. They are usually good at communicating with team members but may not be as comfortable talking with the driver.

Those in the passenger's seat are important assets to your team, and they are the people who are most likely to move into the driver's seat when you need someone else to take the wheel. Notice your passengers. Give them more responsibility and help them trust you enough to communicate with you openly and honestly. Mentor them and give them ongoing training so they can acquire the skills needed to advance their career. Make sure they have the communication skills they need to initiate and engage in necessary and important conversations. You don't want an exceptional member of your team to feel stuck, undervalued, or unappreciated. If they do, they will take the initiative and move to another company with more opportunities for advancement. 

  • Who is sitting in the back seat?  

Team members riding in the backseat don't have any real responsibilities while in that position. Typically, they take direction well and support those in the front seat to achieve the desired goals. Many backseaters will also spend time in the front seat, but once they complete their work, they can sit back and enjoy the view. In the workplace, the people in the backseat generally fall into one of three categories: respite seekers, coasters, and backseat drivers. 

Respite seekers are comfortable sitting in the front seat, and they can jump up front when needed. They have proven leadership skills, communicate well with others, and are able to prioritize their well-being. They probably won't stay in the back seat for long, but while they are, they can rest easy knowing that the people in the front seat have everything under control. 

Coasters are often hyper-aware of their surroundings and want to avoid making waves or drawing attention to themselves. They are often very tuned in to their colleagues but don't always know how to communicate their needs and desires. Although generally competent at their job, they sometimes lack confidence or motivation. Encourage them to observe the people in the front and how they work together to achieve their goals. Check in with them to see how they are doing and talk about their goals and how you can support them with training and communications tools.

Backseat drivers take little responsibility for themselves and their actions. They either aren't aware of how their behavior impacts others, or they simply don't care. They can also be critical of those in the front seat instead of productively communicating their needs and frustrations. Some backseat drivers are bored or frustrated and have cause to feel undervalued and unappreciated. Others never committed themselves to their work, the team or the company and are unlikely to do so now.

As a leader, it is your responsibility to initiate a conversation with the people in the back seat. You have to understand why they are in the back and how you can help them move up front. Each person will have different needs, so it's important that you listen carefully, understand where they are coming from, and take appropriate action. One way to support those in the back seat is to help them develop their communication skills. 

  • Did you check the trunk? 

Every once in a while, you'll find a team member riding around in the trunk. People in the trunk have very little awareness about themselves or their surroundings. In some cases, they may not even realize that they are in the trunk. They often feel lost and out of control of their own lives. Recognize that anyone can find themselves in the trunk -- even you. Once you realize you have a team member in the trunk, help them get the help and support they need. 

In a high-performing team, every member spends most of their time in the driver's seat or the front passenger seat with shorter periods in the back seat. To help your team get into the front seat and stay there, you need to foster a culture of open and honest communication. It starts by committing to your team and turning towards each member so you can help them advance in their careers and become more and more valuable to the organization.