Not too long ago I was put in charge of a couple sections of soldiers who were working on some military intelligence products for an upcoming mission. Since the teams were working on separate products, I assigned myself to one team and had a Lieutenant take charge of another team. The LT had been in the army for a few years, so I had no qualms about giving the team to him. I spoke with him privately and told him that he had “full autonomy” over his team and gave him full discourse over what his team did and how they finished their products. The next morning I come into work at 7:30 fully expecting everyone to be there for unit physical training. They weren’t. When I asked the LT where his team was, he said that he told them that they could do physical training on their own and that they didn’t need to show up until 9:30am. “What? Why did you do that? We always show up at 7:30.”
So, of course, they decided to sleep in and didn’t do any physical training for the day.
And of course my team was upset that they didn’t get to sleep in and come to work at 9:30. The last thing I wanted to create was resentment across the two teams. I thought that maybe a “team building” exercise was in order, but I didn’t carry it out because I felt I would probably screw that up too. I was upset about the whole situation, but mainly I was irritated at myself.
After looking back on the incident, here’s what I learned:
- I never really gave him full autonomy
Here’s what I really said: You can have full autonomy unless you do something I don’t want you to do or something that I disagree with you on. What I told him he could do and what I wanted him to do were two separate things.
- I shouldn’t have given him full autonomy
Giving full autonomy over everything is not really leadership at all. I thought I was doing the right thing by giving him autonomy, but what I should have done in that situation was to give him more direction as to what is expected and necessary. Autonomy has its place and limitations; using it correctly is when it’s the most impactful.
- My communication was not aligned with my expectations
I was never clear on my expectations. What was standard and status quo for me was not necessarily the same for him. Talking through each other’s expectations would have been helpful for minimizing conflict and building trust.
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