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Give Managers Decision-Making Power by Balancing Freedom With Responsibility

In Sweden, child rearing was traditionally strict, which led to a reactionary movement of “free upbringing” in the ’70s. Children were free to make their own decisions, so they basically ran wild. Other parents jokingly called it “free from upbringing” because you can’t enforce rules that don’t exist.

Free upbringing was overcompensation; the ideal is a balancing act. Freedom is valuable, but it’s destructive if not balanced with responsibility. Ultimately, “free upbringing” acted to separate children’s freedom from taking responsibility for their actions.

Your employees are obviously not children, but you do have influence over them. How you act in your role as executive shapes behavior throughout the organization.

Rather than overseeing every single managerial decision or letting them do whatever they want without regard for the consequences, you should give managers the freedom to find their own solutions, then hold them responsible for the outcomes.

Support — Don’t Hover

If you want to increase your company’s bottom line, the first step is to stop hovering over managers. Helicopter management is as bad an idea as helicopter parenting. It feeds dependence and stifles initiative. Instead, give them the freedom to make decisions, and support them along the way.

Research shows that workers who have the autonomy to make their own decisions and be held accountable for those decisions tend to be happier and more productive. You should incentivize managers to align their actions with the company’s aspirations, then give them the power to execute their decisions.

One company that does this well is the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. As a leader in customer service and luxury, it has a policy that permits every employee to spend up to $2,000 to satisfy any single guest. The policy reveals how much confidence and trust leadership has in employees, which bolsters employee confidence and leads to better customer outcomes.

This policy is successful because it moves away from centralized decision-making. Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek argued that centralized decision-making is ineffective because vital information is lost up the chain.

As an executive, you don’t have access to all the knowledge dispersed among your employees. Your employees and managers are the ones on the frontline, and it’s impossible for them to report back to you on all of the relevant details. That’s why it’s best to take the Ritz-Carlton’s approach and give managers the autonomy to resolve customer problems quickly.

Bring Reality Closer to the Ideal

To transition from a command-and-control-style organization to one that values freedom and responsibility, consider the following:

  1. Communicate to gain credibility. If your organizational hierarchy gives managers less responsibility than they can handle, you’ll have to thoroughly explain and demonstrate new expectations. Communicate new opportunities for managing departments or teams, and let managers know you’ll be there to support them along the way. If this is a big change from how your company has approached leadership in the past, you’ll have to work hard to convince managers that the changes you’re making are real. But your employees will rise to the level of expectation.
  1. Stop making decisions, and start consulting. When it comes to problem-solving, an executive’s role toward a manager should not extend beyond consulting. Managers may know what the problem is and how to solve it, but they might lack the confidence or the means to do so. Or they may look to an executive for approval or to evade responsibility if the situation doesn’t go well.

Instead of making decisions for the manager or absolving him of responsibility, ask questions, and allow the manager to recommend the best solution. Then, give the manager the means to carry it out without interference.

  1. Encourage top-down autonomy. Every level of the organization should practice this model of freedom under responsibility. Your managers should learn from their experiences and implement the same practices with the employees under them.

In all cases, problems should be redirected down toward the source. This makes it clear that the manager has both the means and the freedom to execute a decision.

Many companies claim to function like a family, but you’re not raising children. You’re nurturing team leaders to support a growing company. Too many rules are suffocating, but helicopter management creates situations where everyone flees responsibility for the outcomes. Freedom works wonders if it’s supported by sufficient decision-making power and balanced by full responsibility. Give your managers enough freedom to thrive, and they’ll help create success for your business.

Per Bylund is a research professor at the John F. Baugh Center for Entrepreneurship and Free Enterprise of Baylor University. His areas of research are entrepreneurship, management, and economic organization. Connect with him on Twitter.

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