Allowing Autonomy

low angle photo grayscale of person tightrope walking
Photo by Marcelo Moreira on

This article from the Pacific Institute (note, I am affiliated the Institute) really struck a chord with me.

It talks about allowing some risk when guiding employees. Too many rules and teams will be constantly looking at the next step and not the outcome.

In creating the “tightrope effect” we increase the stress and anxiety in people who are too fearful to make a mistake. As the article says, when people “look down” to make sure they are following the steps they are not looking ahead to what can be achieved.

I’ve worked on a number of initiatives where people are asked to adopt a process of some kind. A process or a daily target, for example.

This article made me think of the tightrope we ask our teams to walk if we mis-manage the implementation process.

Riding a motorbike requires the rider to look ahead. I’ve ridden bikes, never look down. Look ahead to see what’s coming so you can negotiate it successfully. (Plus it’s more enjoyable leaning into corners! 😎)

Here’s an example:

In a recent role, we were implementing a new process. There were five steps and each step had five “criteria”. Staff were required to meet each of the criteria at each step. On a regular basis, a scenario was recorded and critiqued by the management team.

Could they identify each of the steps and the associated criteria? Yes. No. Maybe. (Even the managers couldn’t agree!)

The team member was then coached on the outcome of that discussion.

“Here’s what you missed! Here’s what you did well.” What do you think they would reflect on?

“Dear Team Member, Please make sure you complete all steps and all criteria within each step! – Manager”

The feedback asked them to “look down” at each step and criteria. Next time they were with a customer, where do you think their focus would be?

“What if I didn’t do all the criteria but the customer was happy?”

The guidance being to “work it in. Focus on the steps, not the outcome.” That wasn’t the intention, of course, but you can see how it would work out that way.

I had the opportunity to speak with the developer of the model and asked them about the strictness of the model. Do all criteria of each step have to be completed for this to be a success?

“Oh god no! As long as the person is achieving the main steps (rapport building, explain benefits, good questioning, asking for the order and closing) the criteria are guidelines. To help with coaching and development.”

This is where we need to allow some autonomy of our people to do their roles well. We can create so much unnecessary stress in our teams if we demand a certain set of behaviours where a slightly different set will achieve the same outcomes.

In general, we’re dealing with adults but rigidity to this degree means we can also treat them like children.

Allow some risks to be taken, as the original article suggests. Don’t make them look down, you’ll increase the stress, limit performance and the only target you’ll exceed is your staff turnover.

On Being a Higher Performer

This one is straight from James Clear‘s email I received last week.

When doing performance reviews (let’s accept for a minute they are a good thing and well executed), staff often ask how they can achieve higher than the average (aka, doing the job).

I have come across a few managers who aren’t prepared to have this conversation. My conclusion is managers are afraid staff will seek ways to achieve what they have said and will be forced to give higher ratings. That’s just … weird!

I think James sums up the higher scales nicely: (italics are my comments):

The 3 Levels of Employees:

Level 1 — You do what you are asked to do. (This is “doing your job.”)

Level 2 — Level 1 + You think ahead and solve problems before they happen. (I don’t think this applies to the immediate job. That would be considered continuous improvement or identifying something that needs to be fixed to do the job properly.)

Level 3 — Level 2 + You proactively look for areas of opportunity and growth in the business, and figure out how to tap into them. (This is organisational or department-wide. Maybe seeing a significant risk to the business and developing a solution.)

If a company is going to have rating scales, companies (i.e. managers) need to be able to have a conversation about the scales and how to achieve them.

Note 1: For the record, if you do conduct Performance Reviews, they really should be just regular conversations summarising what both parties already know.

Note 2: I am trying to improve my writing and was taught (eons ago) that if you have the word “that” near the beginning of a sentence, you can actually delete everything up to and including the “that” and the sentence will still make perfect sense, and likely be more clear.

Here is paragraph 3 (above) in it’s original state:

What really mystifies me is that I have come across few managers who are even prepared to have this conversation. My conclusion is they are afraid staff will then go seeking to achieve exactly what they have said and then they will be forced to give higher ratings.