The Magic of Freedom Within a Framework

One of the questions I get from time to time is, “How do I provide the freedom to make decisions without losing control?” This question coincides with the employees’ question, “How far can we go in making a decision without crossing some imaginary line?”

Ranjay Gulati, writing in a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, observes, “Leaders cling to the notion that freedom and control are a zero-sum game, often oscillating between the extremes.” In other words, they try complete freedom. When that creates chaos, they return to complete control. This leaves employees confused and wary of making even the most routine decisions.

He maintains, however, that leaders who work to establish “freedom within a framework” succeed in expanding both the level of independent decision-making and trust in the workplace. Employees who are confident that management supports their choices will act without “checking in” on every decision of consequence. But this is provided they have been given the parameter within they must stay when making these decisions. As we might suspect, there is also a direct link between autonomy and the growth of innovative ideas where these boundaries are present.

So how can you establish and foster this freedom within a framework in your firm, or at least your part of it? Try these three strategies:

#1 – Ask those you supervise where they would appreciate more freedom in making day-to-day decisions. Don’t expect them to leap over the table with ideas. You may have to coax them over a period of time to gather these insights. After all, you’d probably be caught off guard as well if your boss asked, “Where do you want more freedom to do your job?” If you persist, however, they will provide examples as these situations arise. When someone asks you to make a decision they should be making themselves, open a conversation. Ask if he or she would appreciate more autonomy to do so. Then take a few minutes to discuss where the parameters might be in having them make that decision. Rather than establishing a set of rules, however, encourage an environment of reason. After all, the parameter may not be in exactly the same place for each situation.

#2 – Keep track of the times when you’re asked to make decisions others should be making themselves. When you have a collection of these, sit down with your people and discuss each scenario and where the boundary is to their autonomy. For any decision inside that boundary, they should be acting on their own. Once again, this may take some coaxing at first. If employees are used to coming to you for every little decision, it will take time for them to build their confidence in acting with more autonomy.

#3 – Persist in establishing this framework. Most habits don’t change easily. If your employees have developed an unconscious protocol about when to ask the boss, it will take some effort to get them past the discomfort of a new routine. Add to this the apprehension some feel in making decisions in general and you may find yourself up against an unseen wall of inertia. But effective leaders learn to scale that wall using persistence, perseverance, creativity and, occasionally, confrontation. The result, however, will be a significant improvement in productivity and day-to-day decision-making.

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