Create Autonomy Through Boundaries

One of the key steps to empowering people is to create autonomy through boundaries.  A problem in the past was the assumption that empowered people could do anything they wanted; they were in charge. That theory just doesn’t make sense.  A river without banks is just a large puddle—what permits a river to flow is its banks.  In empowering people, the banks are the boundary areas or guidelines within which people can operate. Top management takes a lead in providing these boundary areas.  They include the following:

  • Purpose – Everyone needs to know what business you are in.
  • Values – What are the beliefs that drive your behavior?
  • Goals – What are the big picture, bottom-line goals on which everyone should focus?
  • Roles – What are people being asked to do and contribute?
  • Incentives – What’s in it for people if they perform well?
  • Measures – How will people know what good behavior looks like?

Boundaries could also include policies and procedures.  As I learned from coaching great Don Shula when we wrote Everyone’s a Coach—you first need to have a plan, and then you need to expect the unexpected and be ready to change that plan if necessary.  In football, an “audible” is when the quarterback or defensive captain changes the plan on a given play when he realizes it won’t work.  Shula emphasized that effectiveness at calling audibles begins with a plan.

This concept was verified by two of our top consultants when they had a chance to observe the training of guide dogs for the blind.  They found that two kinds of dogs were disqualified from the program. The first kind, obviously, were the dogs who were completely disobedient—they wouldn’t do anything their master asked of them. The other kind of dogs that were dismissed, surprisingly, were ones that were completely obedient dogs—they would do whatever their master wanted.  The dogs that worked best were dogs that would do whatever their master wanted unless it didn’t make sense.

Let me give you an example. The totally obedient dog and its master are standing at a street corner when the dog’s master says, “Forward.” The dog looks to the left and sees a car coming at sixty-five miles an hour.  The dog thinks, “This is a real bummer,” as it leads its master out into the middle of the road.  But a dog that is intelligent and allowed to think for itself can make a choice that best fits the given circumstances.

Many organizations don’t seem to want their people to bring their brains to work.  How many times have you been in a situation where a front line employee said, “I’m sorry, but it’s our policy,” when in your specific circumstances the policy made no sense?

For example, one time when I was checking into a hotel, the woman behind the counter told me they had no rooms available until after 2:00 p.m.  I said, “That’s okay with me.  Could you please store my bags?”

She said, “Fine,” and asked me what else she could do for me.

I said, “I need to cash a traveler’s check.”

“I can’t do that,” she said.  “I don’t know what your room number is yet.”

“Why do you need my room number?” I asked.

“I have to put it on the back of every traveler’s check.”

“That’s a good policy,” I said, “but you have my bags.  It doesn’t make sense in this case.”

Her responses included “It’s our policy,” ”I just work here,” ”I don’t make the rules,” etc.  Can you imagine a guide dog for the blind under those restrictions?  It would be a goner at the first busy street!

Empowerment begins with boundaries.  There is nothing wrong with policies or procedures or other guidelines—empowered employees welcome them—but they recognize they can use their brains and call audibles when the policy doesn’t make sense.  Empowering people without giving them any boundaries can lead to disaster and failure.

2 thoughts on “Create Autonomy Through Boundaries

  1. This is a great column for reminding many people still suffering from the recent downturn and keeping their ‘heads down’ as the economy begins to stabalize and move towards growth. Everyone needs people to be thinking and acting in ways that make sense for all – not just because it is the rule.

    A leader I once worked for used to say often “Don’t just do things right – do the right thing”. Wouldn’t it have been a great ending to your hotel story if the person waiting on you had started laughing when you challenged the room number on the back of the check, then admitted that made no sense and taken care of it. Maybe next time . . .

    Good common sense post. Thank you

Comments are closed.