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How Great Leaders Balance Autonomy and Accountability
Companies don’t succeed when the goals of individuals are out of alignment with the goals of the organization.
Unless individuals are on the same path as the organization, progress can’t happen.
Goal misalignment may be evident between different layers of management and employees, or it may be evident amongst individuals within a department or at a particular level of leadership. Everyone doesn’t have to agree on everything, such as precisely how to meet goals, but everyone must understand what the organization is working toward in order to make progress in the right direction.
Additionally, autonomy and accountability must be in balance in order for progress to go at the right pace. Too much of either can lead to problems and knock personal and organizational goals out of alignment.
Autonomy and Accountability: Lack of Balance Throws Off Alignment
When the wheels on your car are out of alignment, it’s harder to handle. And when you continue driving a car with misaligned wheels, eventually you’ll get uneven wear on the tires and put excessive stress on the suspension, while continually increasing the risk of a crash due to poor handling.
Likewise, when autonomy and accountability go out of balance, it’s easier for personal goals to go out of alignment with organizational goals, and over time, the two can diverge to the point where major backtracking and correction are necessary. Autonomy is good. Accountability is good also. But the two must be well-balanced so that people have both the flexibility to do their job well and innovatively while continuing to help the organization move toward its fundamental goals.
Autonomy without Accountability Can Lead to Disaster
Today’s businesses must be innovative or risk losing their competitive advantage. Autonomy helps set the conditions for innovation because it allows employees flexibility for finding new and better ways to do things. Unchecked autonomy, however, can lead to inefficiencies, poor budget management, confusion, and chaos. And face it: some people will be content to cruise along under the radar, unchecked by accountability.
Without accountability, some people will do whatever they can get away with.
Leadership doesn’t disappear when people have autonomy, but its role shifts a bit. Rigid work assignments and oversight give way to more individualized attention, honest feedback, and coaching. Even so, asking business questions like, “How are costs for this project tracking?” or “Are we on schedule to meet this milestone?” are as valid as ever, and shouldn’t be avoided.
Accountability without Autonomy Leads to Stagnation
When accountability always overrides autonomy, there’s little incentive to innovate. Many of us have been in the position of taking a job with great enthusiasm, only to watch that enthusiasm gradually smothered under layer upon layer of accountability. Eventually, accountability itself becomes the goal, and innovation dies out.
Leadership Is a Balancing Act
Great leaders learn to balance autonomy and accountability, and to maintain that balance during challenging times. Many leadership coaches work with clients who struggle to balance autonomy and accountability. Maybe they worry that if they don’t give team members full autonomy they won’t be liked, or perhaps they are so concerned with meeting metrics and having proof of it that they don’t allow any autonomy.
Leadership coaching involves a keen understanding of both the client and the organization. What are the organizational goals, what are the individual’s goals, and how can they align properly? This is a prerequisite to learning how to balance autonomy and accountability, and it’s hard to learn how to do it without commitment and practice. That’s what leadership coaching is all about. Ultimately, the goal is to give people the right amount of autonomy to innovate and be productive, while maintaining a level of accountability that ensures good business results.
Leadership coaches assist their clients with empowering their teams to find the best solutions, learning when to give away control, and how to implement the checks and balances that work as “guardrails” keeping innovation on the right track. It’s not an easy thing to learn on one’s own, and that’s one reason why leadership coaches are in high demand. If you would like to learn more, I invite you to explore my executive coaching services.