The Freedom Ladder
Generally, the more freedom you can give people in the way they do their jobs, the more motivated they will be and the better the results that you will receive.
Of course, they can’t have freedom unless you can trust them, which requires a certain amount of competence and motivation from them to start with. Either they may not be used to being given freedom in the way they do things, so they may have to be introduced to it gradually.
The best way to decide how much freedom a person should have for a particular task is to think about where they are on the Freedom Ladder. Note: A person can be at more than one point on the ladder, for different parts of their job.
1. The bottom level: “Wait until told.” You don’t want people to be at this level, because it’s hard work telling them what to do all the time, and they don’t want to be here because it’s boring. Or do they? Well, some people do, because it’s safe and they get an easy life. They haven’t realized or nobody has shown them that work can be more than an easy life—it can be interesting and challenging and rewarding. So, this is a starting point, but you don’t want people to stay here.
2. Starting to move up: “Ask what’s next.” As people get more motivated, they start to want to help, and when they finish one job, they might come and ask for the next one. They have moved up a level!
3. Becoming competent: “Suggest/check before acting.” At the next level, they come to you and suggest things they could do. But they don’t have the freedom or authority to just do those things—they have to check with you first. For example, they say, “I think we should buy a new one of these,” or “Can we work over the weekend to finish this job?” They get to contribute to what happens by suggesting ideas, and you still have control—nothing can happen without your approval.
4. Becoming free: Report afterward. Next, you are giving them some freedom: They can visit that customer, buy that item, or send that letter, but they need to let you know afterward what they’ve been doing. It’s too late for you to reverse any mistakes, but you can at least prevent repeats. It saves you time: They still report to you, but maybe just with a weekly summary, and they can get on with their job and just let you know about it later. You still know everything that’s going on, even though it’s usually after it’s happened.
5. The top level: Free to act. Finally, they can move up to the top level where they are free to act—they don’t have to tell you after they have done something, they just get on with their job. There might be some routine reporting, probably monthly or quarterly budget reports, but the detail is all up to them. You save time because they require less management, and they get the satisfaction and ownership of doing the job the way they want to do it.
Upward progress should be discussed and agreed every time a job is assigned—e.g., “You can go ahead and do this however you like, but I want to know before you send anything out to the customer.” The objective is to keep moving people up the ladder, but only when they are ready for it. But the process may be initiated by either side; for example, the manager can say, “I think you’re ready for the next level,” or a team member can say, “I think I’m ready for the next level.”
Homework: Pick a few people from your team and some tasks that they’re doing, and think about where they are on the ladder. Are they at the right level? Could they be moved up a level?
See you tomorrow for a closer look at the vital skill of delegation.
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