How to give autonomy and keep accountability

    One of the most complicated balancing acts of management is autonomy and accountability. On the one hand, you've got to give them the freedom to exercise their expertise but you've also got external stakeholders to consider.

    According to the theory of self-determination, you're team is happiest when they

    • Have autonomy: Your team must feel in control of their own behaviours and goals. This sense of being able to take direct action that will result in real change plays a major part in helping people feel self-determined.
    • Are building competence: Your team need to gain mastery of tasks and learn different skills. When people feel that they have the skills needed for success, they are more likely to take actions that will help them achieve their goals.
    • Feel connected to the team/vision: Your team need to experience a sense of belonging. They need to feel part of the team and not simply 'your employee'.

    However, you have ultimate responsibility for the performance of your team and other parts of the organisation are probably exporting to receive work from you. If your timelines begin to slip, it's human nature to want to dive in and ensure that stuff gets done. This hands-on attitude risks taking autonomy away from your team as well as damaging the connection they feel.

    While no risk is 100% mitigated, there are some things you can do to ensure both accountability and autonomy are practised.


    The weekly one on one

    You must have weekly one-on-ones with your reports. You cannot hope to be a great leader without it. It's impossible.

    • Do not move these meetings unless it's absolutely necessary
    • Do not cancel these meetings because 'there is nothing to talk about'

    Every week, ask your team how they are and listen. Build that personal connection, which then builds trust and allows you to deliver both positive and negative feedback in a way that is constructive. According to Patrick Lencioni, you cannot deliver negative feedback without a base of trust. Think about when you've received negative feedback from someone you've never had a conversation with. How did it feel? 


    Go through your colleague's workload and let them offer timelines

    • Ask your colleague to go through each project they are doing, what led to the project being prioritised, and what's a realistic timeline to expect something to be delivered.
    • Think about the workload and, along with your colleague, make a reasonable decision about if there is too much or too little. You can do this by asking questions that push the thought process in that direction. eg "Looking at all of these projects together, is it reasonable to hit every timeline that you suggested?". You must give your team ownership.
    • Each subsequent week, I check in with each project. "Are you still happy with the timelines that you gave?"

    An example

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    The above is a screenshot of an actual one-on-one that I conducted at my prior company.  I ensure it's as lightweight as possible so that I'm not putting loads of my time into administration.

    1. You can see that I note down each project with a simple one-liner (we have other systems to put the meat of projects).
    2. Each project has a timeline (NOT A DEADLINE) which has been suggested by my colleague and not myself. In case we have a difference of opinion on importance, I may ask if we can bring one timeline forward at the expense of another, but you shouldn't be over-ruling unless there are exceptional circumstances
    3. I use the handy comment button just to reaffirm that a timeline still looks good. You can see that we are implementing KnowBe4 at present. My colleague informed me of the project at the beginning of July with roll out by 10th August. Each subsequent week, I ask him if he's happy with the timeline and we mark that the timeline still looks good.


    The outcome

    Timelines are difficult. If one slips, it's never nice to go to your stakeholders and say "You know the thing I promised next week? It's not going to happen"

    You will never be able to get to 100% efficiency because timelines are estimates, but the approach above does a number of things:

    • It puts your colleague in charge of the project. They are making the estimates and because of that, they will have ownership.
    • There will be fewer occasions when you need to meddle in the project because you are pre-emptively asking how things are going, and how you can help (if your help is wanted).
    • You can help your colleague prioritise their projects ensuring a mix of more simple ones and ones that require a stretch.

    Generally, this method requires very little administration and creates happier teams!