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  • Writer's pictureJon Mechan

Creating Team Autonomy

In my last article I wrote about how you might go about Building a Leadership Team - this time I want to go a bit further and explore autonomy within a team. This applies at all levels of an organization and is a useful tool to consider when you're trying to improve your delegation skills.

Levels of Independence

The focus here is on the autonomy of your team members. Your direct reports will have different levels of independence, based on their experience, maturity, confidence, the situation, and a number of other factors.

There are six degrees of independence - assess where your people are in this list:

1. Look into it, report, I’ll decide what to do

2. Look into it, report alternative with pros and cons and your recommendation

3. Look into it, let me know what you intend to do but don’t do it unless I say yes

4. Look into it, let me know what you intend to do and then do it unless I say no

5. Take action, let me know what you did

6. Take action, no further communication required.

The more senior your team, the greater the expectation that they are at a higher level of independence. Part of your role as the leader is to assess the current level of the individual and the context of the decision at hand, and then set the appropriate expectation with them.

The context part is important. There are degrees of delegation in different situations - for example you would expect a manager to be able to communicate to their team as they see fit (level 5 or 6) but you may want to review a communication that is going to be sent to the whole company prior to sending it (level 3 or 4).

Ideally, the more that your team can work at higher levels the better. This frees you to work on the things that are important without having to micromanage.

My personal preference is for most activity to happen at level 5 - i.e. I like to be informed as to what my team are up to, and I expect them to be mostly autonomous and to take ownership of their area of responsibility.

Who's Got the Monkey?

Related to this idea is this classic HBR article - originally from 1974 and republished in 1999, it illustrates the idea that as a leader you don't want to take decisions and problems (monkeys) from your subordinates and deal with them yourself. Effectively, if you take on all of these things for your team members, you're working for them rather than the other way around.

Actually I find this mentality a little bit old-fashioned - I prefer to think of us as a team all working together toward a common goal rather than boss and employee but the idea about taking on other people's responsibilities stands. Part of giving your team autonomy is also about giving them ownership and accountability for the areas they are responsible for.

What Happens When Things Go Wrong?

Naturally there are going to be occasions where things go wrong. Allowing your team to fail safely is important - I've talked before about psychological safety - and your role as a leader is to give them space to learn. You can choose where they have more autonomy and can fail with a small blast radius, and work with them to examine what went wrong and how to improve next time.

One of my favourite questions here is "What did I do to create, promote, or allow this to happen?"

If someone doesn't deliver what they say they will, there are two possible reasons:

- They couldn't do it - in which case we should figure out why and support them

- There isn't a good reason - in which case they're out of integrity and that needs to be investigated.


What do you think? Are you taking care of monkeys for your team? How independent are they? How independent are you?

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