Overview

Provide the information (the context) to a team or team member in order to allow them to make their own decision about how to respond to a situation rather than simply telling them what to do (asserting managerial control).

Why We Do It

Allowing your team to make their own decisions has a number of benefits. First of all, it invests them more in the outcome. Having agreed with you on the goal, and having reached their decision to act on their own, the team is much more likely to continue taking steps on their own—without outside guidance—to ensure they reach the goal. This may include putting in extra effort, putting in extra time, and addressing roadblocks that come up without waiting to be told. In other words, a team with autonomy and context will operate in a more self-directed manner than one that lacks one of those two things.

Even if your team is not a well-oiled, self-directed machine, it becomes much easier to nudge them in the right direction to achieve the goal if they have all the information and have already agreed with you on the importance of reaching the goal.

Additionally, this fosters a greater sense of autonomy for members of the team. Rather than being told what to do, they are being given information and participating in decisions. In other words, you’re investing the time in your team members to explain the deciding factors and then mentoring them on the decision. In addition to satisfying employees that value autonomy, you’re also demonstrating a non-controlling management style and laying the foundation for future leaders to emulate.

Depending on your company, this idea may also play an important part of the company’s culture and purpose, like it does with Netflix. Having your team see you taking actions that clearly align with the company’s values demonstrates your belief in those ideas, reinforcing their importance with your team.

How We Do It

This technique is an investment in your employees, so it will likely require more time and effort to implement than simply telling people what to do. It will almost certainly require practice, especially if you come from a background of more traditional control-style management. Like any other form of mentoring or training, it will be difficult to implement if your organization is highly reactive and every situation is handled as a four-alarm fire. To do this technique effectively, you must carve out the time to spend having conversations with your team.

Start by ensuring you have good communication with your team. Providing context requires proactive communication on the part of management, and when there are gaps in understanding, the team must feel comfortable seeking clarity from you. Next, try to recognize every time you’re giving a team member direction on what to do. Those are likely controlling moments, even if they’re fairly benign, and the goal is to instead turn those into conversations about what things you know (that your team member does not) that are leading you to give the direction you’re giving.

Ask, “What do you think our next move should be?” or a similar question. If the other person arrives at the same conclusion you have, then you’ve likely provided enough context. If they don’t, then ask questions to understand their logic. You’ll likely uncover invalid or unexamined assumptions in either their thought process or yours, both of which are instructive!

In addition to logical errors, though, you’re also likely to sometimes encounter a lack of understanding about how things fit in the bigger picture. After all, you’re talking to someone who is likely a tactical expert, while you’ve taken a more strategic view of things. They may not be used to considering how the bigger pieces of a project or a company are moving, so they may not give various factors the same importance as you.

Incidentally, this is an excellent time to employ Socratic Leadership to lead your employee toward the decision you believe is right. Keep in mind, however, that you want to drive a team or individual toward achieving a goal, not necessarily performing a specific implementation. This management style gives up control, so you should be okay getting the result you want but in a way that’s different from how you would have achieved it.

Avoid any hand-waving to establish baseline assumptions or dismiss an employee’s lack of understanding. Those baseline beliefs are very important to how you are making decisions, so you should certainly be able to justify them to employees.

For example, if you know the Vice President of Technology believes it is important to pursue more extensive testing efforts to reduce defects, and if you are in turn wanting an employee to perform additional testing work this week to satisfy that goal, then should already have examined the belief that additional testing is the correct course of action to address the goal of reducing defects. Don’t hand-wave that away by simply saying the VP requires it. If you yourself do not understand the context of the VP’s course of action, then you’re simply letting the Senior VP transitively control your team members. This management style encourages conversation on both sides, so you should neither take it personally if your employees challenge you nor be afraid to do the same with your management to seek clarity.

Recognize that the growth of autonomy is a continuum, and you will absolutely have team members that lack the experience, maturity, or analytical capability to always come to the same conclusions that you do. Although there are some noted exceptions about when control may be applied (the situation is urgent, the person is too new to be confident, or the wrong person is in the role), your goal is to spend the time teaching that decision-making process before exerting—if occasionally necessary—control to move the situation along. Over time, you should be able to do that less and less with a person… and if you can’t, that may be a good indication that you have the wrong person in that role!

Finally, create a loop of continual context by sharing information proactively with your team going forward. Don’t wait for them to do the wrong thing before realizing you need to tell them there’s new information or a factor has changed. Get in the habit of sharing those things with them before they come to decision points. In terms of ownership, a leader can almost always own responsibility of a problem by recognizing that the team did the wrong thing because they lacked enough context to see why the course they took would be wrong.

Expected Results

Just as with any investment, the goal is to turn a short-term sacrifice into a long-term benefit. In this case, you’re spending the time and effort in the short-term teaching and building autonomous employees. The benefit you’re seeking to reap in the long-term is to have a more autonomous employee who can make more decisions on their own with less involvement from you. A good indicator that you’ve created an autonomous team is when you recognize the most productive thing you can do in a day is stay out of their way.

This technique is also the sort of individual- or team-based action that can have a slow but noticeable effect on the overall culture of an organization. Managers will struggle to make it work in fear-based, blame-centric, or compliance-oriented cultures, whereas it will be much easier to implement in trust-based and result-oriented cultures. The culture impacts the efficacy of the action, but this action also impacts the culture by attracting and retaining people who value autonomy and trust-based relationships.

Example

Let’s look at a couple different versions of an example conversation using the previous scenario where the Vice President of Technology wants to increase testing to reduce defects:

Asserting Control (counterexample)

You: Alice, I need you to stay late Thursday and Friday creating test scenarios.

Alice: But I don’t want to stay late!

You: Well, the VP said this has to happen.

Providing Incomplete Context

You: Alice, I need you to stay late Thursday and Friday creating test scenarios.

Alice: But I don’t want to stay late!

You: Well, the VP needs us to reduce our defects, so we have to produce more tests.

Alice: So is the goal to produce more tests or fewer defects?

You: Uh. Tests. We have to do what the VP says.

Alice: There might be a better way to prevent all these defects lately.

You: Well, sorry. Right now we just need lots of tests.

Providing Context

You: Alice, do you remember the conversation we had last week where our VP was emphasizing the need for us to reduce defects and we all agreed that was a priority?

Alice: Yep.

You: Our latest cycle looks like we’re still producing a lot of defects. What do you think we should do?

Alice: Well, the team could put in some extra time this week writing more tests, but we might be able to prevent the defects instead of just catching them at the end of the week.

You: Oh?

Alice: We’ve put three junior engineers on this project in the last month, and I think we could adopt a process where we review their work more closely. I can produce some additional tests this week to give us a greater sense of security, but I think we should talk to Bob and Carl about how to do implement this review process.

In the last example, not only did Alice take ownership of the issue and volunteer to take on additional tasks, she also provided insight that may lead the team to eliminating or reducing the problem over time. This example revealed that not only does contextual information need to flow downward in an organization but also that people in tactical roles can bring valuable knowledge and perspectives about problems when they’re involved in the decision-making process.

Research