Balancing management and autonomy, the leaders’ challenge


At the start of our team leader workshops, we ask the team leaders to share their biggest challenge.  A common challenge is how to balance management and autonomy.  As a leader, how do I exert the necessary amount of control and allow the team to have the desired level of autonomy?  It is compounded by another factor.  Team members are all different.  Some want to be told what to do and others prefer no direction at all.  It is no wonder leading a team is a challenging role.

Let’s start with the perspective of the leader.  Why do they want to exert control?  The leader is responsible for the team’s results.  If they let everyone do what they want, is it possible to achieve the desired result?  Probably not.  And if I’m responsible for the outcome, I want a big say in how we will create the desired results.  This was how I felt as an emerging team leader.

Reframing the need for control

On a diverse cross-functional team it is likely you will have a lot of differing opinions.  Each team member will have their own idea how the team operates and accomplishes its goals.   Control is a word we tend to resist.  It feels constraining, so let’s reframe it.  Instead of control, let’s use the word align.

It is the leaders’ role to align the team on a set of shared behaviors.  These behaviors describe what is and is not acceptable on the team.  For example how do we resolve our differences?  How do we make decisions?  As much as everyone wants some level of autonomy, we also need alignment on how we work together.  We need to know what is acceptable and what isn’t.

What about autonomy?

This all sounds great from the leaders’ perspective, but what about autonomy?  Won’t these agreements on how we work together slow me down?  I believe the opposite is true.  Imagine driving car on a winding road without any crash barriers.  The road has no signs telling you there is a sharp curve ahead.  How would you drive along it?  I would be cautious, especially if I hadn’t driven it before.

Our teams  are more complex than simple.  Without guardrails, we will operate more cautiously.  If we have clear guidance explaining what is and is not acceptable, we can work more freely.  In my career at Intel, I challenged a senior leader that she was discouraging innovation by strictly defining the scope of the project.  Her response was spot on.  “You are free to innovate as much as you like within this scope.”  That was very empowering!  In fact, research on innovation points out that constraints can drive more innovation.

Coming back to our initial dilemma, how can team leaders balance management and autonomy?  In my view they are complimentary.  You need to have both, they work hand in glove.  I also believe the balance will change over time.  If you have driven the same road many times, you won’t need so many guardrails.  The same is true for teams.  Team leaders need to continue the conversation.  What is the right balance of management and autonomy for our team today?

Is it time you had this conversation with your team?