Leadership in a decentralized organization
9 MIN. READ
COVERED IN THIS ARTICLE:
- What Leaders Want Most: Leaders want teams to handle their purviews, leaving them free to focus on top-level concerns.
- Organizational Neurosis: Employees are productive and embracing flexible work, but leaders find it hard to trust them.
- Productivity Paranoia: A mistrustful leader leads to an insecure employee, which makes for a listless workforce.
- People Want Autonomy, Not Anarchy: Leaders and managers need to provide employees with direction on how to prioritize their projects and workloads.
- Letting Go Without Losing Control: Autonomy within defined parameters enhances performance and productivity in decentralized organizations.
- Turning Doubt Into Confidence, Suspicion Into Trust, and Autonomy Into Success: Leaders who trust their teams will have fewer concerns about autonomy.
WHAT LEADERS WANT MOST
Leaders want strong teams.
That’s hardly a revelation.
Strong teams are the engine of organizational success and a bellwether of its health and vitality.
Strong teams are versatile, innovative, collaborative, communicative, cohesive, productive and mission-aligned.
Strong teams thrive with good leadership and good leaders thrive with strong teams. Why? Because good leaders provide clear direction and strong teams can be trusted to handle their purview — leaving leaders to focus on the top-level concerns that only they are positioned to tackle.
So, it follows that strong teams are characterized by one significant quality. Strong teams have a strong measure of autonomy.
Yet autonomy is something that many leaders — even the iconic ones — struggle to grant their people. Fear of losing control is often at the root. Too often, executives hesitate to allow autonomy because they equate it with rudderlessness or a lack of authority. And that reluctance can act as a poison in organizational cultures, cascading down through the ranks from the C-suites to the loading docks, sapping energy and enthusiasm, and undermining an otherwise healthy culture.
Teams that don’t have the faith of their leaders can never grow strong.
A leader committed to nurturing teams to their greatest potential is necessarily engaged in an ongoing trust fall exercise. But we can’t be laissez-faire either — people do need direction.
As our organizations struggle with the challenges of the new hybrid paradigm in the workplace, it’s become ever more important for executive leaders to reconcile these opposing forces.
The times are even more uncertain than they were two years ago and the signs of macroeconomic decline are only increasing. A cynical outlook is understandable. It would be all too easy to let that attitude extend to our own people. But it isn’t beneficial. And, more than likely, it would be wrong.
In the extensive Work Trend Index published in September 2022, Microsoft surveyed 20,000 people across 11 countries, analyzed trillions of Microsoft 365 productivity signals, and tracked LinkedIn and Glint People Science labor trends. The collected data points to realities that leaders would be unwise to ignore.
Employees have embraced flexible work and its benefits, and they are rejecting the resumption of hustle culture. But this doesn’t indicate a decline in performance. On the contrary, people are working better than ever, with 87% of employees reporting high productivity. The Microsoft 365 indicators back the numbers up, showing that productivity continues to trend upwards.
Meanwhile, 85% of leaders say they find it hard to trust that employees are being productive with the shift to hybrid work. This has spurred some organizations to enforce unpopular return-to-office policies or — even more inadvisably — to deploy productivity tracking technology — all in an effort to salve the unsubstantiated insecurities of leadership.
The disconnect between how much people say they are working and how much leaders think they are working has never seemed more stark.
Illustration by Valerio Pelligrini (from Work Trend Index, Microsoft 2022)
Organizations can’t be expected to thrive with that sort of cognitive dissonance at their operational core. An erosion of the trust between leaders and their teams threatens to do more harm than any of the perceived inefficiencies driving it.
“[L]eaders and managers are missing the old visual cues of what it means to be productive because they can’t ‘see’ who is hard at work by walking down the hall or past the conference room. Indeed, compared to in-person managers, hybrid managers are more likely to say they struggle to trust their employees to do their best work.”
Microsoft identifies this “Productivity Paranoia” as an existential threat to organizations that must find a way to embrace hybrid work and autonomous-leaning cultures, or risk losing both their best people and their competitive edge.
In fact, Productivity Paranoia is often the catalyst for the exact sorts of inefficiencies that we fear most. Mistrustful leaders inevitably produce insecure employees, which in turn creates a listless workforce and/or a trend towards productivity theater (the performance of work rather than the actual execution of it).
Despite study after study showing increased productivity (even to the point of overwork) and steady gains on many performance metrics, the perception that our teams are somehow falling short still persists. If we don’t move decisively to correct this, the alienation caused by that disconnect will only deepen. Our best people will either move on to more respectful organizations or be burned up trying to meet our expectations.
The onus is on us.
Above all, as leaders we need to address our own misgivings … and check them.
We set the tone.
PEOPLE WANT AUTONOMY, NOT ANARCHY
Perhaps the greatest misconception feeding our skepticism about an autonomous workforce is the belief that teams will just wind up going their own way, consequences be damned. This is far from the truth.
An astounding 81% of employees specifically point to the importance of leaders and managers providing direction on how to prioritize their projects and workloads. But less than a third (31%) say their managers actually deliver this kind of service. And the problem is top-down, with 80% of people managers admitting they would also “benefit from more clarity from senior leadership on impactful priorities.”
A significant portion of employees and managers also report being burned out at work (48% and 53%, respectively). So, more is required of us than a simple reordering of the overflowing to-do list.
Our teams (we emphasize teams because that’s the ideal we’re building towards) need more from us as leaders. They need clearly defined boundaries and objectives. And they need our experience and insight to help them in tuning their efforts.
This shouldn’t be misinterpreted as an invitation to micro-manage or as an endorsement of an old school command-and-control type of leadership. Our teams are still more likely to thrive in an environment that gives them agency over the execution of their work and encourages freely given mission buy-in.
Researcher Matt K. Parker describes a version of this approach in his book, A Radical Enterprise.
“Radical collaboration,” as Parker explains it, focuses on operational autonomy, control over the performance environment, built around small teams and a devolution of middle management gatekeeping.
This stands in stark contrast to a corporate status quo that Parker warns against, of organizations that operate “through a paradigm of domination and coercion, dominator hierarchies [that] structurally deprive employees of autonomy, which in turn contributes to organizational woes like disengagement, mistrust, and meaninglessness.”
In Parker’s model, companies self-organize around autonomy of schedule (in which teams decide where and when to work, and how to synchronize their schedules to allow real-time collaboration) and autonomy of allocation (where teams are not assigned but, rather, allowed to form freely around aligned interests and motivations), all contributing to the greater organizational mission.
This may sound just a little too pie-in-the-sky for many of us, something for the goofier startups to play around with. But at least two thriving ventures operate under versions of this system, the appliance company Haier ($36 billion revenue) and agricultural producer Morning Star ($800 million revenue).
“They are entirely self-managing. At Haier, there are no middle managers or bureaucracy, no labyrinth of procedures or soul-crushing red tape. Instead, each microenterprise sets their own goals,” Parker writes.
Of course, radical collaboration of this sort won’t suit every organization. Nor should it. For most of us, finding the more balanced path between autonomy and control will be more effective — and give our people the structured self-determination they need to excel.
LETTING GO WITHOUT LOSING CONTROL
George S. Patton — US Army 4-star general, war hero, inventor and Olympic pentathlete — famously said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”
This is sage and surprising advice from a renowned leader at the highest echelons of one of the most rigidly hierarchical organizations in history.
But Patton’s confidence in his people’s self-reliance was undoubtedly based on the certainty that they would act from a place of common strategic and operational clarity. His leadership outlined the scope. Their training and experience allowed them to improvise in the pursuit of the objectives. It’s a kind of certitude that must seem beyond the grasp of many private sector leaders.
In any organization — and most especially in decentralized ones — teams acting autonomously will dramatically enhance performance and productivity, but only if done within clearly defined parameters. Autonomy can only exist where there’s strategic clarity and that clarity is rarer than we like to admit.
There is startling evidence that employees often don’t know or understand the strategic choices their organizations have made. A recent study showed that, even in high-performing companies with clearly defined strategies, only 29 percent of employees could identify their own company’s strategies.
As leaders, our role is not just to communicate the organizational mission but also to help our teams understand their part in it. We can’t assume the “why” is obvious. Too often, employees are asked to pursue a particular result without the context for that goal — or how it contributes to the greater whole.
We need to become more adept at articulating the desired results, their importance and value to the greater undertaking and the expected standard of completion — then step back.
With those things clearly communicated, teams should have an expansive, if delineated, arena within which to work and experiment. This allows them to make choices about how they will reach a directed goal and encourages a sense of agency and purpose around their work. Being able to tailor the approach to their preferences and abilities can only benefit performance.
There also needs to be a continuous feedback loop between teams and leaders. Without falling into the micro-management trap, we need to be present and available to provide assistance that is well-timed and appropriate.
In any ambitious venture, obstacles will present themselves and pivots will need to be made — not all of them capable of being handled independently by our autonomous teams. It’s important for them to know that leaders are always available and willing to offer help. And we must make them comfortable asking for it, without undermining their sense of efficacy and independence.
Research published in the Harvard Business Review suggests — in a flouting of conventional wisdom — “that a well-timed cure may be better than that ounce of prevention.” Instead of trying to preemptively problem-solve, the great helper leaders are those who wait until their teams have hit an impasse before putting themselves forward to offer counsel. “[P]eople are more willing to welcome assistance when they’re already engaged in a task or a project and have experienced its challenges firsthand.”
Above all, the rhythm of an executive leader’s involvement — its intensity and frequency — should be aligned with a specific team’s needs — no more and no less.
TURNING DOUBT INTO CONFIDENCE, SUSPICION INTO TRUST, AND AUTONOMY INTO SUCCESS
It should go without saying that leaders who have faith in their teams’ proficiencies and mission-alignment will have fewer concerns about allowing autonomy to thrive in their organization.
It follows that the responsibility for any lingering suspicions and doubts lies more with the leader than their people. Teams that know their place and purpose within an operation should be able to act effectively and autonomously. If, for some reason, the results of autonomous efforts are more chaotic than coherent, it’s likely that there’s a mission disconnect that persists — one that leadership will need to remedy.
If we are continuously communicating, auditing and modeling our organizational values, goals and principles — ensuring that they remain in sync with the espoused missions — our teams should have no trouble following us.
More significantly, we should have no trouble trusting them to lead us from strength to strength.
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Helping Behavior,” APA, 2022,
Colin M. Fisher, Teresa M. Amabile, and Julianna Pillemer, “How to Help (without Micromanaging),” Harvard Business Review, 2021,
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