In a recent post for Fast Company entitled Managers: Set People Free To Promote Growth And Get Results, Blanchard Executive VP Scott Blanchard makes the observation that knowing when to give people greater autonomy in their jobs is often hard for managers to figure out.
As a leader, it’s important to make sure you’ve set your people up for success before you transfer responsibility and accountability. Here are some of Blanchard’s key points to make sure you’ve done your part.
Share what to do, with clear guidelines
A big part of being a manager is saying, “I’ve done what I can do, and now I need to turn it over to people so they can be accountable and responsible for their own performance.” The reality is that managers can’t watch their people all the time, so at some point their people are going to have to act on their manager’s behalf, consistent with the way that their manager wants them to act. This requires the manager to provide a clear picture of the desired outcome.
Make it a gradual process
Autonomy, when correctly implemented, is a gradual and appropriate empowering and loosening of the reins on people to enable them to take responsibility for what they are doing. For example, if you are a parent, you know that sooner or later your children are going to be out in the world, living and making decisions outside of your expressed views.
If parents don’t let their kids do anything independently and develop their own skills before they turn 18 and leave for college, then they’re asking for trouble. Parents, as well as managers, need to slowly loosen the leash and give more autonomy over time. Otherwise they’re going to see some real disasters because they haven’t built up a person’s capacity to be autonomous.
Employees aren’t children, of course, but this example provides some context that all of us can relate to.
There is a big difference between providing autonomy and abdicating management responsibility. If managers just let people loose without skills, abilities, and boundaries, then they are abdicating responsibility and setting people up to fail. Autonomy needs to be a slow and steady process. Your goal as a manager is to help people learn their job inside and out through thorough training, and then, as they demonstrate competency, give them the autonomy to be flexible. Autonomy without competence is really risky and dangerous, and lack of autonomy when someone is competent can be insulting and demotivating.
Look for the right time
The challenge for a manager, then, is to identify the point at which to turn the job over to the employee. This is the leap of faith when supervisors move from a coaching role to a more consultative role with their people. Parents, again, are familiar with this when they watch their kids drive away to college–they take a big gulp and hope that they’ve prepared their kids to take care of themselves when they get to the campus.
In my own case, I have been known to give people responsibility too soon–sending them out before they really have all the competence and skills necessary. Other people I know have a tendency to hang on too long–then they miss the opportunity to give people a chance to really spread their wings and succeed or fail on their own merit. When managers hang on too long, they can create either dependence, or a sense of frustration, anger, and resentment in employees because the employees feel they are being micromanaged. As a manager, you want to get it right as often as you can, but be aware of the possibility that you may be either too slow or too fast in turning people loose.
In matters that aren’t life and death I would recommend a bias toward turning people loose early. In more critical circumstances you may have to hang on for a more extended period of time, but eventually you still need to let them go off on their own.
To read more of Blanchard’s thoughts on empowering your employees, check out his complete post here at the Fast Company Leadership Experts blog.