Positive Outliers

Are you giving enough Autonomy?

I wrote recently about my decision fatigue in at a Chicago Deli, in my post called Stunned by Choice.

Sometimes, when we head up teams, departments and entire organisations, we are exhausted by the culture we ourselves create.  We hoard to ourselves too many decisions.

For example, Jordan was promoted to head up a team, succeeding Angela, his predecessor. It’s always difficult stepping into another manager’s shoes, but this team was used to a change of boss every few months.

However, Jordan felt he needed to check everything his team did. At first, this was more about him learning what his new team did, part of his own induction into his new role. He was tempted to continue this beyond where he felt confident he knew enough of what was going on, but he resisted that temptation.


Over time, Jordan learned to brief team members with pre-approval. He learned how competent individual team members were in their individual areas. As trust in the quality of each team member grew, he needed to check less. And there came a time when he felt able to delegate to some with the instruction:

“Whatever you come up with as a solution is already approved by me. I don’t need to check.”


Daniel Pink, in his book, Drive, distils human motivation, the kind of motivation that drives performance to exceptional levels as resolving to three key areas:

  1. Autonomy. Where appropriate, we like to be left alone to work out our own solutions to a task, in our own way.
  2. Purpose. We thrive when we can connect what we do with something larger than ourselves or our organisation.
  3. Mastery. We like to feel we are getting better at what we do.

People thrive when they have all three in their work. Great leaders provide all three. Pre-approval plays primarily to the first one: it gives the delegates autonomy.

People thrive in their work when they gain autonomy, connection with a greater purpose and can gain mastery in what they do.

When I led my first team, I didn’t know much about autonomy and pre-approval. There came a time when people were literally queuing outside my office door to see me. (Yes, shame on me, but it was closed.) I had to think again.

Always Appropriate?

Another friend of mine tried pre-approval and it didn’t go so well. There are a number of conditions outside the team that require pre-approval to work. For example, if we are:

In a complex, changing, high-risk environment, each one of us needs the larger picture that the team provides
Introduced to urgent work in areas where we feel incompetent, we become demotivated
In the midst of internal politics, without a commonly-agreed set of values and culture in place, people are likely not to use autonomy for the good of the team, but in a partisan, even self-serving way.

It may be that the opportunities to give our co-workers autonomy are difficult to identify, but the rewards are great if pre-approval is used appropriately.

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