There are plenty of highly credentialed scientists who can describe…
So, you’ve been promoted or hired into a position having greater levels of responsibility than perhaps you’ve ever had before.
You have my sincere congratulations because it means that someone with considerable decision-making authority believes in you and your abilities. You’ve probably earned it, and you’re probably excited to get started and do the things you were hired to do.
To be entrusted with new or greater responsibilities, however, can provoke feelings of uncertainty that can escalate to genuine anxiety. If this is happening to you on some level, don’t worry. It happens to the best of us and can be overcome.
Perhaps it is this anxiety that tempts newly promoted managers to make what I’ve observed and experienced as the most common and most damaging of leadership mistakes, which is to monopolize the autonomy that each member of team needs to feel relevant and valued as a professional.
Autonomy is the right that people reserve for themselves to make their own decisions and apply their own individual talents and strengths in a way that brings value to a team and its stakeholders.
A person with autonomy feels entrusted with the ability to make choices. He also feels safe making honest mistakes. Then, as it often does, this trust inflates him with feelings of energy and purpose, motivating him further to learn and develop the skills he needs to exercise his autonomy with greater poise and effectiveness. As his leader, your goal is to share as much of your own authority with him as you can.
But an unfortunate thing happens when newly-hired or newly-promoted managers take the reins of a team: They take the reins of a team.
In a recent article I published about controlling personalities, I discussed how anxiety triggers a control reflex within people who are susceptible to it.
As a manager having new or greater responsibilities, any anxiety or feelings of uncertainty you feel make you susceptible to it too. And if you succumb to the temptation, you may make the very common mistake of hoarding everyone’s personal autonomy to the point that no one feels any sense of relevance or power.
Yes, I understand that your responsibilities may have you believing that you’re entitled to the control you want because you expect to be held accountable for the results you produce. You may also find that the leaders to whom you report tend to hoard autonomy as well, making you feel as if you need to do the same with your team.
Trust me, I get it. I’ve been there. So here’s what you should do.
As you assume your new leadership position, prioritize and reward individual decision-making autonomy across your team. Over time, make it clear that any future success will depend on everyone having the skills and expertise to make wise choices even under difficult circumstances. In making this clear, you are sending the message that everyone is responsible for developing themselves and lifting themselves up to meet these challenges.
You will certainly be there to help them; that’s your job after all. But you shouldn’t have any intentions of making decisions for people that they can make for themselves. Doing so will eliminate the need for them to learn and grow.
Even if you sense that some people may not have the professional skills or judgement to exercise high levels of autonomy, make it clear that you expect them to do so in the not-so-distant future. If they can’t or if they refuse to, other options will have to be considered.
Your job as a contemporary, 21st Century leader is not to be the one who produces all of your team’s success. Instead, your job is to facilitate success by leveraging the natural talents and strengths of everyone on your team. This will require that you take the time necessary to get to know your people and understand what they’re good at, what they struggle with, and what their capacity for learning is.
If you come to make the #1 mistake that newly promoted managers make, you will take the reins of your team and strip its members of the opportunity and responsibility to exercise their own personal autonomy. With their autonomy broken, they will feel no inspiration or motivation to do their best. As a result, their contributions will suffer, their behaviors will turn toxic, and the overall performance of the team will decline.
Along the way, if you encounter team members who seem unwilling or unable to exercise personal autonomy, then you have a problem of a different sort, one that may require some deeper analysis to understand and solve.
As you do so, center your focus on the people who are willing and able to be decision-makers and who are willing and able to take on reasonable degrees of responsibility for the good of the team. It is with these individuals that you will culture and reward personal commitment and autonomy. Eventually, the less willing among you will see what’s going on and will be more likely to change their attitudes in due course.
I’d like to leave you with one final thought, one that I share with many of my clients who face opportunities and challenges similar to yours.
If you work in a professional environment that exists to offer products and services requiring higher levels of professional expertise, then it’s okay to expect your people to be professionals. It’s ok to expect them to hold themselves accountable for their conduct and commitment. They shouldn’t need you to do this for them, to demand that they meet this most basic of expectations.
Exercising individual autonomy is among the most basic of attributes that distinguish being a professional from just holding a job.
Chances are that your team needs professionals, not job holders.
John M. Collins is an executive leadership coach at Critical Victories in Southfield, Michigan. He specializes in supporting clients in high-stakes occupations requiring high levels of expertise to earn and retain the trust of the public or other consequential stakeholders. John shares some of his unique philosophies and insights on high-stakes leadership in his 2022 book, THE NEW SUPERIOR – A BETTER WAY TO BE THE ONE IN CHARGE (www.thenewsuperior.com), available in hardcover and audio.
John works with people, teams, and organizations across the United States and oversees. If you are serious about expanding your leadership effectiveness, click below to request a free client strategy call: