Want to Give Your People More Autonomy? Set Boundaries First!

This may seem to be a contradiction in terms, but the very best way for organizations to begin developing a culture of empowerment is to set boundaries. By boundaries I don’t mean restrictive, barbed wire fences that tell people where they can and can’t go; I’m talking about flexible, rubber band guidelines that are able to expand to allow people to take on more responsibility and autonomy in relation to their skill level.

Some leaders believe giving people autonomy means allowing them the freedom to do anything they want to do. But that’s not true. Just as river banks allow a river to flow, effective boundaries help channel people’s energy in the right direction. Giving people freedom within boundaries empowers them to grow, develop, and accomplish their goals in a way that makes sense.

A great example of boundary setting is budgeting. People who lack the skills to set budgets are given a boundary—a spending limit—before being given more responsibility. They are also given the training and skill development needed to enable them to handle greater autonomy.

Again, even though it may sound illogical, organizations must have a fundamental structure in place before they can create a true autonomous culture. This structure includes a common purpose, values, and goals, individual job roles, specific incentives and other motivators, along with models of appropriate behavior and measures of success. Basic structure elements also can include company rules, policies, and procedures, of course—but with the provision of allowing people to use their brains to make exceptions when a policy doesn’t make sense.

Team members may think autonomy means they immediately get to make all the decisions—and they may be disappointed when they learn their manager will continue to make strategic decisions. But as people learn from their manager what goes into decision making, and as they become more comfortable assuming the inherent risks, their manager will involve them in operational decisions. Through regular training, people gradually become accountable for their decisions and the potential consequences, and managers pull back on their involvement in decision making. These guidelines allow managers and their people to operate freely within their newly defined roles.

A true culture of empowerment involves establishing boundaries, providing structure and training, and then getting out of the way and trusting your people to be magnificent.