Be in charge without being in control

| March 5, 2018

Managers today are bombarded from all sides with demands to increase employee engagement and for good reason too.  Plenty of research shows that highly engaged employees perform better, stay longer with the company, require less sick leave and look after clients better which leads to increased revenues, profits and customer retention.  Everyone wins.

That same research has also shown that highly engaged employees aren’t motivated as much by the traditional carrot and stick approach of bonuses and promotion for performance and the withholding of them for the lack of it.

Those highly engaged employees are motivated by what Dan Pink describes in his book Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us as “intrinsic motivation” where the nature of the work they do and the environment they do it in provides them with the motivation to perform.

One of the three pillars of this intrinsic motivation, it turns out, is autonomy – the others, by the way, are mastery and purpose – which we will loosely define here as the “desire and freedom to direct our own actions”.

But then those managers run into a dilemma.

The dilemma occurs because part of a manager’s job is to keep their people focussed on the task at hand and all heading in generally the same direction. We could sum this up as a desire to maintain control over what our people are up to in our desire to keep them aligned and working together.

If we grant everyone the freedom to self-direct then who knows where they all might end up and what havoc they might unleash along the way.

At first inspection this dilemma might actually seem like a paradox – the more autonomy we grant then the less alignment we must accept and the more alignment we create then the less autonomy we permit.  Either way, someone loses out.  Staff lose motivation and we lose performance or staff enjoy the freedom to do what they want and we get – well, who knows…?

The sad reality for many employees is that managers often choose to enforce alignment over granting autonomy with a corresponding and predictable drop in morale, productivity and bottom line results.

The symptoms are familiar – people do only what they have to in order to get by, problems become someone else’s job to solve and anyone trying to change things by instituting a policy of “use initiative to solve problems and think for yourself” soon finds out that culture beats policy every time.

The Paradox That Isn’t

The reality is that there is no paradox.  We can actually have both autonomy and alignment at the same time.  We can grant people the freedom to think for themselves to solve problems and take advantage of fleeting opportunities without worrying about the consequences. Here’s how the military do it.

Military operations are complex activities involving a lot of moving parts – no different to most businesses in many respects.  Commanders communicate their plan to achieve their desired outcomes by delivering formal orders in a standardised setting called, somewhat predictably, an Orders Group or O-Group for short.  Orders follow a set pattern that sets out what precisely the commander intends to achieve and why it matters in the overall picture.

Having done that, the commander assigns responsibility for specific tasks to subordinates and finally he establishes what are called control measures which are essentially constraints or limits within which subordinates must operate.   Then he sends them away to plan.

The boss has told each of his subordinates WHAT they have to achieve, WHAT resources they have available to them, WHAT they can NOT do in achieving the aim, WHEN it must be achieved by and WHY it matters in the bigger picture.

He takes care to give them only the information they can’t work out for themselves – what he hasn’t told them is HOW they are to achieve the aim because their job is to tell him. That happens in what we call the backbrief; so called because the subordinate leaders brief back up the chain of command rather than the conventional top-down information flow in many organisations.

In the backbrief, two things happen.  First, subordinates explain in a very condensed form what it is they think they’ve just been directed to achieve in order to confirm their understanding of the overall plan and their role within it.  After all, what can be misunderstood eventually will be misunderstood so this avoids that little embarrassment.

Next, they explain in broad terms HOW they plan to achieve the outcomes assigned to them in order to ensure that their plan is aligned with both their boss’s plan and those of their peers.

What the military have found is that by using this process, they create alignment both vertically between leaders and subordinates but also horizontally between subordinates who will have to cooperate in the execution of the bosses plan.  Gaps in the plan can be spotted and filled.  Problems can be pre-empted and avoided.

They’ve also found that with this increased alignment, they’re able to grant large degrees of autonomy to subordinates empowered with the responsibility to use their initiative to take action within their assigned limits to achieve the mission.

The result? Everyone wins.