Healthy Habits for High Performing Leaders: Fostering Autonomy Through Building Decision Makers at Every Level

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Over the years, I have frequently encountered executives who have a strong desire for their teams to be autonomous and avoid relying excessively on direction for every decision. However, while leaders advocate for this shift towards taking the initiative, they often face challenges. They find their teams either hesitate to take action independently or make decisions that diverge from what the leaders themselves would have chosen. This discrepancy underscores the complexity of nurturing teams that can operate autonomously and effectively.

The irony is that although employers (and most employees) often want autonomy, leaders’ behaviors don’t always support this independence. As a result, employees may lack the necessary competencies and resources to make informed decisions. If our team members are hesitant to take initiative, we must ask ourselves as leaders: What are we doing to inhibit employee autonomy, and what can we do to more fully support it?

The Correlation Between Empowerment and Organizational Success

There is a clear correlation between empowering front-line individuals with decision-making responsibilities and achieving organizational success.

In past articles, we’ve spoken about Navy Captain L. David Marquet, author of “Turn the Ship Around!“. In a reflective blog post, a restaurant manager aimed to adopt a new leadership style by answering the questions at the end of each chapter. However, his response to how deeply the traditional leader-follower structure was embedded in his operations—”Sometimes it’s not the leader but the people”—revealed a misunderstanding of Marquet’s key argument. This highlighted a common issue: leaders often appreciate the theory of empowering employees but struggle to implement it effectively, defaulting to the mindset of blaming employees instead of transforming the leadership system itself by removing barriers.

Performance improvement consultants McKinsey & Company write that excessive control can hinder decision-making and reduce flexibility in organizations with competent staff who understand their objectives clearly. Senior leaders should concentrate on their unique roles, such as establishing objectives, making strategic decisions, and eliminating obstacles. While not every decision can be delegated, delegating appropriately is important for effective decision-making.

Sometimes, though, leaders forget that there are barriers that inhibit employees from taking the initiative and making decisions.

Here’s how the McKinsey article, along with my own insights, elaborate on some of the barriers to people taking the initiative:

  1. Dabbling in delegation: Ineffective delegation often reverts to a controlling approach, typically due to unclear direction, priorities, and strategic goals, poor accountability, inadequate decision-makers, and a culture dominated by fear. Think about if you are delegating tasks or delegating decisions. It is easier just to delegate tasks than to develop competent decision-makers. It is our job as leaders to help them make good decisions. 
  2. Micromanaging: Managers often maintain tight control, demanding every detail before making decisions and requiring extensive reviews and reporting. This behavior, driven by fear or ego, leads to compartmentalization and partial delegation while subtly promoting escalation up the hierarchy. At the opposite end of the continuum, a common problem is “dumping,” where tasks are assigned without support or clear guidance, leading to ineffective decision-making and a sense of helplessness among staff.

A few weeks ago, one of our marketing clients was tasked with creating a campaign and received the vague directive, “You are creative. I’d like to see what you can do.” This lack of clear guidance led to multiple costly and time-consuming revisions of the advertisement. This situation often arises because leaders may not know exactly what they want until they see something concrete. The problem can be mitigated by having short, frequent discussions throughout the process.

  1. A need for control: The fear of losing control among leaders and an aversion to failure among employees can inhibit empowerment. For instance, consider a scenario where a manager entrusts an employee with decision-making responsibilities. This employee consistently delivers sound decisions but eventually makes an error. When upper management questions the mistake, the manager blames the employee. This reaction discourages the employee from making future decisions without the manager’s approval. This pattern, if widespread within an organization, effectively stifles delegation of decision-making, reinforcing a belief among leaders that only they are capable of making decisions correctly.
  2. Fear of failure (or fear of looking bad): A prevalent fear among leaders—that their team might make a mistake and reflect poorly on them—often leads companies accustomed to success to adopt a more conservative approach, focusing on avoiding failure rather than striving for victory. This cautious mindset prompts managers to excessively scrutinize, escalate, and verify actions, prioritizing safety over innovation. Instead of empowering and coaching their teams, they hesitate to take risks due to a fear of failure, missing valuable opportunities to learn from mistakes.
  3. Fear of reprisal: When leaders harbor a fear of adverse outcomes, it can resonate with their teams as a fear of taking the initiative due to potential negative repercussions. This lack of psychological safety means employees might worry their mistakes will lead to blame or even retribution, inhibiting their willingness to innovate or make independent decisions.

What Can Leaders Do to Help Drive Decision-Making Down?

7 ways leaders drive decision making

Leaders in agile organizations recognize the significant costs of micromanagement and ineffective delegation, which stifle employee creativity and productivity, preventing the organization from moving swiftly. Consequently, they prioritize overcoming these obstacles to enhance organizational agility and foster a more dynamic work environment. Below are some ways leaders can create a more agile and productive environment:

  • Ensure a clear vision and guiding principles to help with decision-making. A primary goal of setting straightforward tenets is to provide a consistent direction for decision-making. For example, articulating values like “The customer may not always be right, but we are here to listen,” “We strive to practice what we teach,” or “We seek win-win outcomes for all involved” helps guide organizational behavior. It’s crucial to ensure these principles are well-defined, that staff are thoroughly trained, and that they are consistently used as guiding principles in everyday operations.
  • Clearly communicate intent and outcome. When you delegate make sure you and your team members are on the same page regarding what you want to accomplish and why.   Additional discussions may be necessary to ensure everyone understands the goals similarly. It is important to take the time to clarify any ambiguities and achieve a shared understanding among all team members. This clarity streamlines processes and aligns efforts toward achieving the intended results efficiently and effectively.
  • Think out loud. This approach involves discussing the decision-making process openly and explaining how guiding principles influenced the outcome rather than simply stating the final decision. By verbalizing the thought process, leaders model critical decision-making skills. This method clarifies your rationale behind decisions for team members and teaches them how to apply guiding principles effectively in their decision-making.
  • Ensure team members have the necessary competencies, resources, and tools. This includes providing the appropriate software, equipment, and quality benchmarks to effectively meet expectations. It’s crucial to verify that all essential resources are in place to facilitate their work and achieve desired outcomes.
  • Quick status updates should be made early and often. Regular, early status updates are essential to counteract the negative effects of “dumping work.” Conducting these updates frequently from the start makes it possible to identify and correct any issues early on. Discussing ideas before diving deep into tasks can speed up processes. Although these initial discussions take time, they prevent constant firefighting, disengagement, and a culture of learned helplessness. Investing time developing employees’ critical thinking skills is crucial; otherwise, leaders may be perpetually disappointed, firefighting, and burdened with excessive workloads.
  • Differentiate between different and wrong. It’s important to distinguish between actions that are different and those that are wrong. Even though something was done differently than you would have done it, it does not mean it was incorrect. Leaders should avoid focusing excessively on minor issues and focus on a more helpful perspective by considering the long-term impact of these issues: will they matter in five minutes, five days, or five weeks? If not, it may not be worth stressing over. This approach helps maintain focus on what truly matters and fosters a more flexible and understanding leadership style.
  • Manage your reaction to mistakes. How you respond to mistakes is important. Do you penalize the messenger, harshly criticize, increase micromanagement, or retract delegated tasks? Instead, embracing a growth mindset can transform errors into valuable learning opportunities. Assess your reactions and adjust them to support rather than inhibit development. This approach encourages improvement and innovation and builds a resilient and engaged team.

Turning Your Leadership Style Around 

While you might not be commanding a submarine, like David Marquet, helping team members adopt a mindset that moves away from “Because you told me to” is critical for fostering the next generation of servant leadership. Marquet’s approach of empowering subordinates fundamentally changes how leaders interact with their teams, fostering a culture where employees feel trusted to make decisions. This management style is instrumental in developing an organizational culture, creating the right environment for effective decision-making, and promoting leadership at all levels.

You don’t always get to choose your people, but as a leader, it is your responsibility to help them perform to their fullest potential. Too frequently, as leaders, we jump to the conclusion that lack of performance is a problem with the people we have in place.  in assessing whether an issue is related to people in the context of servant leadership, consider two key aspects: 

  1. Is the issue prevalent across the majority (e.g., 90%) or just a few individuals (1-2 people)? If it is prevalent across the organization, it is important to assess the role that you, as the leader, and processes and procedures may be playing. 
  2. Honestly assess whether you clearly communicated goals and expectations, provided the necessary resources to do the jog, and ensured people had the training they needed to be successful.

If you’ve implemented the supportive strategies outlined above and still don’t see results or initiative, it might indicate that you have the wrong people. However, before concluding it’s a people issue, ensure that all systemic and leadership supports are optimized.

Ready to enhance decision-making and critical thinking across all levels of your organization? Contact us to explore how we can develop leaders who excel in these areas, fostering a culture of flexibility and trust.

Visit our Leadership Flexibility and Trust page or contact us directly for more information on how we can transform your team’s capabilities.

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