Guided Autonomy as a Leadership Style

Updated: Dec 21, 2021


Sweet Spot

Right in the middle of a hand’s off approach to leadership and micromanaging, is this sweet spot I call “Guided Autonomy.” I wrote of this as I declared my own leadership style in my graduate program and then proceeded to pass by the term as if my professor inherently knew what I was talking about. It seemed obvious to me at the time, as I had heard it referenced in learning environments. But guided autonomy as a leadership style is not widely talked about. So, I am going to talk about it today.

Leadership Style

I have coached many leaders and one thing remains the same. None of them want to be accused of the dreaded micromanaging label. I don’t blame them. I have suffered at the hand of a major micromanager, and it damages a relationship quickly. Many leaders have asked, “how do I navigate empowering and supporting my team without seeming like a micromanaging boss?” Those are the tuned in ones. Others have taken a heavily laissez faire approach and decided to remain completely hand’s off, citing they are not a micromanager at all. And they are correct, however, there is usually a disconnect between them and the people they lead. There tends to be a lack of support, and trust eventually breaks. Then there are the ones who are unsure. And they vacillate between the two. They look at each scenario and wonder what it calls for. Sometimes they feel they are micromanaging. Other times they feel they are safe to be hand’s off. These are the “good intention” ones that I love working with. Regardless of where leaders fall, I always share the concept of guided autonomy at one point or another.


Guided Autonomy

So, what does guided autonomy look like? Imagine you are giving your team instructions to be at the other end of the country in one week. Hand’s off would be to give a pat on the back and say, “have fun, see you there!” Micromanaging would be to tell them how to travel, what to pack, when to stop, where to stop, and how many miles to travel in a day. You might even draft their itinerary and check on them each day. Phew!

Guided autonomy looks like this: You tell them you all need to meet up across the country in a week. You warn them of potential barriers based on their chosen mode of travel. You give them some critical information (i.e., location of where you will be meeting, what you will be doing, anything they need to prepare in advance), and you make yourself available if they need you. The power is in the team’s hands.

In this guided autonomy scenario, your team is prepared with critical information need to plan, they know they have your support if needed, and they are free to make the plan they want. Nobody is demeaning them by telling them how to do it or following up on every detail. On the flip side, they are not left in the dark wondering what is going to happen and ill-prepared.


Empowerment

Guided autonomy creates empowered teams. Autonomy is not synonymous with abandonment or isolation. Autonomy is the right to self-govern. It is the freedom from external control or influence. That doesn’t mean that giving your team autonomy requires you to leave them alone. It just means your support is working on a pull system and not a push system. Supporting autonomous team members can help boost empowerment. When you create a space that validates their skills and abilities, you are contributing to their confidence. You are sending a message that you trust them to do their job and are also available to them.


Practice

If you want to start using this style (perhaps you already do and I just gave you a fun name for it), there is a simple strategy for getting stared. Before the next project or assignment, you hand off to your team, consider what information you typically share. It might even help to break it down by category. Then consider what is critical to share. Think back to the travel scenario. What information is going to be important for the team to get across the country in one week – end goal, barriers, what is happening, what they need to do, etc. But what information is too much, too directive – itinerary, mode of transportation, etc. You can have that information handy if the team asks for it. Your role in supporting them is to remain in a pull position.


Conclusion

Oftentimes we end up micromanaging out of fear our teams will fail. Failure is inevitable. But that can’t be the reason for micromanaging. Be there to help navigate the learning moments in failure. I will leave you with one disclaimer. None of what I am suggesting should be interpreted as ignoring true performance issues. If you tell a team to meet you across country in one week and they end up in another country, or they fail to travel at all, that is a different story. I am referring only to the means in which you request and support the work of your teams. I do have plenty to share on performance management though…for another day!