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.

What Principles Are on Your Belief Window?

Many years ago, my late, great friend Hyrum Smith was a member of a team that discovered the Reality Model, a brilliant visual way of describing how people look at life. Hyrum was so taken by the concepts in the model that he spent much of the rest of his life traveling around  and spreading the life-changing message to businesses, schools, churches, and even prisons. The ideas in the model aren’t new, but they are remarkably relevant for today. Why? Because the Reality Model helps people see the world as it really is.

The main concept of the Reality Model is the idea that each of us has a Belief Window through which we observe the world around us. On our Belief Window are thousands of principles we believe to be true about ourselves, our world, and other people. Most of these principles are an attempt to meet a basic human need such as to live, to love and be loved, to feel important, or to have variety. Some principles, such as “the Earth is round,” reflect reality, and some, such as “dogs are better than cats,” are subjective. Either way, we believe them to be true and we will behave as if they are—because our beliefs drive our behavior.

That said, the key to effective living is to continually identify the changing principles on our Belief Windows, look at the results they give us, and ask an important question: Will these results meet my needs over time? If the answer is yes,it usually means it is a valid belief for us. If the answer is no, we can chalk it up as a lousy belief and choose to either get rid of it or change it.

Let me give you a personal example. I once found myself tipping the scale at more than thirty pounds over my normal weight. My wife, Margie, asked me what my philosophy of eating was—particularly when I was consulting and teaching on the road. I answered, “If I’ve been working hard, I deserve to eat anything I want at night.” She said, “So how is that working for you?” I had to admit, it wasn’t fun carrying around the burden of that extra weight. These results weren’t meeting my needs over time. I needed to make a change.

Now remember: beliefs drive behavior. I realized that before my behavior could change, what I believed about eating had to change. I had to find an alternative principle. After much thought, I came up with this: “If I’ve been working hard, I deserve to eat a healthy dinner so I can sleep well and feel good about myself.” My revised principle helped me, over time, to get the results I wanted—and evaluating my Belief Window was instrumental in helping me turn my health around.

Why am I sharing these thoughts with you today? In the past eighteen months, we all have been carrying around the burden of living through a pandemic. Each of us has faced our own challenges—physical health, mental health, jobs, finances, etc. Many people’s lives have been turned upside down in too many ways to count. I’d like to suggest we all take a look at the principles that have formed on our Belief Windows and determine whether or not they have been meeting our needs over time.

For example, let’s say you have this principle on your Belief Window: “I’m afraid to leave the house. The world is a scary place.” Is that a lousy belief or is it a valid belief? Have the results of your behavior met your needs over time? If they haven’t, perhaps you could adopt an alternative principle that would meet your needs better. How about this: “Walking my dog after breakfast is a safe way for me to get back into life.” Will that alter your behavior in a positive way? Yes, it will.

Or maybe there’s been a change in what is important to you: “I’m not looking forward to going back to my office. Working from home makes me happier and I get more work done.” Is that a lousy belief or a valid belief? Have those results met your needs over time? If you think they have, talk to your supervisor—perhaps you can make working from home a permanent choice.   

When you discover that certain principles have helped you find peace of mind, hold on to them. When you uncover beliefs that haven’t been working for you, get rid of them or come up with alternatives that can help you change your results for the better. And don’t forget the phrase over time—because results take time to measure.

Are the results of your beliefs and behavior meeting your needs? Following this model won’t improve everything overnight. But becoming aware of your principles and applying the concepts of the Belief Window may be a step in the right direction.

Training Plus Coaching: A Formula for Success

Several years ago, someone asked me a thought-provoking question: “What has been your biggest disappointment in your career?” After careful reflection, it occurred to me that what bothered me most was that while my books were widely read and our training programs were used around the world, people were not following through on the concepts and using them consistently in their day-to-day work.

Why not? I wondered.

When Training Doesn’t Stick

It’s not that people didn’t care or weren’t motivated to apply the learning. It’s just that, despite their most sincere efforts, what they were learning just wasn’t sticking.

People would go to an expensive training, get inspired, and vow to apply the learning. Then they would get back to the office. Soon their notes from the training would be buried under a pile of work. Perhaps they would even try to apply some of the training. But because they were not yet good at the skills, the outcome of their efforts would be neutral or even negative. The newly trained people didn’t really have time to figure out why, so they would write off the training and go back to their old, not-so-great way of doing things.

It bothered us that the investments organizations were making in training were going down the drain.

Coaching Can Bridge the Gap

We realized that to bridge the gap between what people knew—all the good advice and tools they had learned in training—and what they did with this knowledge, people needed more support.

We have found that the best way to help people retain and apply what they learn is to integrate coaching with training. We recommend enrolling participants into a minimum of three coaching sessions after a training. In each session, the coach has focused conversations with the participant to help them tailor their new knowledge to their own work scenarios.

Sometimes even the smartest students miss key insights. Madeleine Blanchard, cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services, recalled working with the president of a company who had just taken our SLII® leadership training. The program teaches leaders how to diagnose the development level of their direct reports on each goal and task and apply the appropriate leadership style.

The president was eager to become a role model for SLII® leadership—someone who knew exactly what each person on his team needed to succeed.

“Do you have clear goals and tasks for each direct report?” Madeleine asked in her first session with the president.

The answer was no. In his eagerness to master all the other content, the president had forgotten the first step in the training: goal setting. That kind of oversight is common—and is exactly why coaches can be invaluable in helping people apply what they’ve learned.

Where AI and Virtual Coaching Fall Short

Lately, artificial intelligence has been making a big splash in the training industry. Although AI technology offers some benefits, when it comes to making training stick, there’s nothing as effective as working with another warm-blooded, breathing human being.

There’s no big mystery to that. If you’ve ever done a physical fitness or weight loss program, you know how much more effective it is to answer to a personal trainer or classroom instructor than an unfeeling, computer-generated coach.

No matter how sophisticated AI becomes, a virtual coach can’t prepare people for all the variables they will encounter when they try to put their training into practice in the workplace. It can’t hold people accountable to their commitment to apply the training. And there’s no way a virtual coach can take the place of a human when it comes to acknowledging, praising, and celebrating progress.

It’s human nature to be motivated by positive feedback from others. “After our coaching sessions, people often get back to me about how they’re applying the training,” says Madeleine. “A common email I get is, ‘You are going to be so proud of me.’”

Coaching: An Investment with Long-Term Rewards

The investments organizations make in training are not intended to end when people leave the classroom. In fact, that’s just the beginning. The hope is that the benefits from the training will accrue to the bottom line over the long term.

A small additional expenditure in follow-up coaching assures that an organization’s training investment will pay dividends well into the future. If the cost of one-on-one coaching is prohibitive, small group coaching can also be effective. So, start integrating follow-up coaching with your training. You’ll be amazed at the results!

Don’t Let Failure Stop You from Succeeding

We have all made mistakes in life, done things we regret, or had to deal with failure at one level or another. Some consequences are harder to get through than others. The big question is: how do you come back from the aftershocks of a bad performance, decision, or mistake?

My good friend and coauthor of Helping People Win at Work, WD-40 Company CEO Garry Ridge, knows how. When he took the reins of that organization many years ago, he knew he had to create a safe culture where people knew they wouldn’t be punished or fired if they made a mistake.

“What I needed to do was to help people realize that mistakes were inevitable but not necessarily fatal,” said Garry. “To do that, I had to redefine the concept of mistakes. I needed to teach people not to be afraid to fail. I had to earn their trust by showing that neither I nor any of our managers would take adverse action if someone tried something new and didn’t succeed. At WD-40 Company, when things go wrong, we don’t call them mistakes; we call them learning moments.”

Believe it or not, lots of leaders who encourage innovation in their people feel the same way. High performing organizations like WD-40 Company treat mistakes and failures as important data, recognizing that they often can lead to breakthroughs.

My personal physician, Dr. Lee Rice of the LifeWellness Institute, has this to say about learning from failure: “I like to encourage people to dream big, envision the meaning of success in their effort, and wholeheartedly go for it. Announce the goal, put a stake in the ground, and be committed. Remove the obstacles that have been the seeds to past failures. Pave the way for success and don’t be afraid to make the critical choices and changes that will ensure success. Let go of fear. Expect problems and don’t become paralyzed by temporary setbacks or failures. Learn from past mistakes and use them as a means to learn and grow. Be grateful for the lessons, enjoy the path, and embrace love.”

San Diego’s own Phil Mickelson recently made an amazing comeback with a PGA Tournament victory. At age 50, he is now the oldest major champion in golf history. He had experienced some tough times on the tour for a number of years—so, as a well loved player, walking to the 18th hole with victory in hand was quite a thrill.

A tweet he sent out, which immediately went viral, is worth sharing:

“I’ve failed many times in my life and career and because of this I’ve learned a lot. Instead of feeling defeated countless times, I’ve used it as fuel to drive me to work harder. So today, join me in accepting our failures. Let’s use them to motivate us to work even harder.” – Phil Mickelson

What a wonderful perspective on life.

If you still have pangs of negative feelings about something that didn’t go quite right in your life, remember this: We all come from unconditional love. God didn’t make any junk. And we all can learn to feel that unconditional love for ourselves. No matter what you do, you can’t control enough, win enough, have enough, or do enough to get any more love. You have all the love there is. So don’t feel so bad about yourself that you start believing other people are better than you are. And be careful not to let your ego go too far the other way, where you start believing you’re better than other people. You ought to feel just fine about yourself. You’re not any better or worse than anybody. You are beautiful. And when you have that kind of balanced self-esteem, you can get through anything.

So try not to get down when things don’t go the way you want initially. Hang in there. The future is still in your hands if you tough it out, work hard, and have a positive mindset.

Day-to-Day Coaching: The Best Way to Help People Get an A

An effective performance management system consists of three parts: performance planning, day-to-day coaching, and performance review.

Most organizations, unfortunately, devote the greatest amount of time to the third part of the performance management system: performance review. This is where manager and direct report sit down and assess the direct report’s performance since the last annual review. Over the years I’ve heard HR leaders boast, “You’ll love our new performance review form.” I always laugh because I think most of those forms could be thrown out. Why? Because they tend to measure things nobody knows how to evaluate, such as initiative, willingness to take responsibility, or promotability. When people don’t understand how to win during a performance review, they focus most of their energy up the hierarchy. After all, if you have a good relationship with your boss, you might have a higher probability of getting a good evaluation. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but it’s certainly not an effective way to manage performance.

Many leaders in organizations do a good job on performance planning and set very clear goals with their people. But then what happens to those goals? Most often, they get filed and no one looks at them until it’s time for their annual performance review. Then everybody runs around, bumping into each other, trying to find the goals.

So which of the three parts of the performance management system do you think managers are least inclined to spend time on? You’re right: day-to-day coaching is the most ignored of the three—yet it is the most significant aspect of managing people’s performance. Why? Because the most important feedback—praising progress and redirecting inappropriate behavior—happens on an ongoing basis.

In our book Helping People Win at Work: A Business Philosophy Called “Don’t Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A,” WD-40 Company CEO Garry Ridge and I discuss in detail how an effective performance management system works.

The book was inspired by my ten-year experience as a college professor. I was always in trouble. What drove the faculty crazy more than anything was how, at the beginning of every course, I gave students the final exam.

When the faculty first found out about it, they came to me and said, “What are you doing?”

I said, “I’m confused.”

They said, “You look it.”

“I thought we were supposed to teach these students.”

“You are, but you don’t give them the final exam ahead of time!”

“Not only will I give them the final exam ahead of time, what do you think I’ll do throughout the semester? I’ll teach them the answers so that when they get to the final exam, they’ll get A’s. Because life is all about getting A’s.”

I tell you this little story because it is a great metaphor for an effective performance management system. Here’s why:

  • Giving the final exam at the beginning of the year is like setting goals during performance planning: it lets people know exactly what’s expected of them.
  • Teaching the answers is what day-to-day coaching is all about. Check in with each person on a regular basis. If you see or hear about someone doing something right, you don’t wait a year to congratulate them during their performance review—you give them a praising on the spot. If they do something wrong, you don’t save your feedback for their review—you redirect them right away to get them back on track toward their goal.
  • Finally, when people get the final exam again at the end of the year—their performance review—they will get an A: a great evaluation.

After learning about this philosophy, Garry Ridge implemented “Don’t Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A” as a major theme in his company. He is so emphatic about this concept that he has been known to fire managers of poor performers rather than the underachievers if he learns the managers did nothing to help the person in question get an A.

When a performance management system is done right, there are no surprises at performance review time. Team members have stayed focused on their goals and know what a good job looks like—because their manager has connected with them throughout the year with day-to-day coaching to ensure they get an A. Now that’s performance management.