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As a leader, how do you balance boundaries with autonomy?

I recently painted the last room in our home since we moved in.

I’d been dreading it because I knew how much work was required before a drop of paint went on the walls.

It had been the bedroom of a teenage girl.

  • who loved thumbtacks.
  • who was allowed to pin things to the walls with wild abandon.

I admired what was certainly her creativity.
I disliked the amount of spackle required.

The photo below is from one small section. The entire room looked like this.

How do you balance boundaries with autonomy | Cynthia Farrell | 110 West Group

I kept thinking to myself, “Why didn’t they get her a bulletin board?”

A bulletin board, or big squares of cork, would have given her plenty of space to be creative with some boundaries.

And would have saved me a lot of spackle.

Autonomy with boundaries.

One of the quandaries I often hear from leaders and leadership teams relates to giving their employees autonomy.

By autonomy, I’m talking about greater freedom over their work: the ability to be more creative, decide where and how it gets done, determine whom to work with, and what “done” looks like.

Reported benefits of greater autonomy include increased engagement, greater innovation, and improved decision-making skills.

Yet leaders struggle with giving autonomy.

Sometimes it’s due to ineffective leadership behaviors (i.e. needing to maintain control, lack of trust, etc.).

Sometimes leaders just don’t know how to set boundaries for autonomy, boundaries that give space for exploration, yet keep it within parameters.

And it’s OK to set boundaries. In fact, it’s what you SHOULD do. Autonomy does not mean allowing the Wild West.

How do you do it, especially if you’re a leader who struggles to give autonomy?

  1. Start small. Pick something relatively low-stakes yet meaningful to the people working on it. At the same time, make sure it’s something you’re a bit uncomfortable with–that’s the growth area.
  2. Determine what you think the boundaries should be. How much freedom do they have to create, collaborate, test, fail? How often do you want updates? How will you provide support? Again, make it a little uncomfortable for yourself.
  3. Meet with your employee and/or team to discuss the work and the boundaries. Get their input. Especially get clear on what they need and want from you. Articulate that it’s a development opportunity–for them AND you.
  4. Let them go. Check in and provide support as agreed.
  5. At a natural completion point, debrief how it went and what you collectively learned. Do it again–with something a bit bigger this time.

Added benefit to those listed above: YOU as the leader have more time.

What tips do you have for granting autonomy with boundaries? How have you made it work?

PS–Parents, for the sake of the people who will live in your house after you, please get your teenager a corkboard.

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