Giving Feedback vs. Giving Autonomy: Where is the Line?

A few weeks ago, a newsletter subscriber messaged me with a really interesting and common challenge. Today, I want to share that challenge with you and give you some ideas on how you can overcome it. If you haven’t experienced it already, you probably will at some point.

And if you have a challenge that you’re personally facing, just hit reply to this email and let me know. You’ll get a personalised reply from me and I’ll almost certainly expand on my reply in a future newsletter.

The challenge I received is:

“The thing I find personally challenging as a leader is knowing when to give feedback to someone vs when what they are doing is simply a different method/style than I would prefer.”

What we’re focusing on here is the scenario where you give someone a task or a project to complete and they do it, but the way in which they complete the work is different to how you’d have personally done it. 

Let’s dive in and look at a few principles that you can keep in mind when dealing with this situation. 

Accept the risk that comes with being a manager

When you take on the role of managing other people, you need to accept that you’re also taking on a large degree of risk. You’re no longer an individual contributor who is in control of their own workload, tasks and ways of working. Even the most effective and experienced managers will have team members who get things wrong and make mistakes.

You’ll never avoid this risk, so don’t even try.

Instead, do your best to clear the path for them and give them the tools, trust and autonomy that they need to do a good job.

If you can’t accept and embrace this risk, then managing and leading people may not be for you.

Avoid the temptation to dive in and get hands on too early

When this challenge occurs, the first temptation that you’ll have is to get involved with the task or project and help. This is understandable and usually happens when you first notice that someone is approaching things in a different way to how you’d do it. For example, perhaps the first step of the task is to gather information and data, so they open a tool or piece of software to gather the data for them. But they open a tool that you’ve never used before and you feel like you may need to suggest that they use the tool that you use.

The key thing to do here is to understand the difference between them doing things wrong vs. doing things differently. It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference, but in most cases, you’ll be able to quickly tell if they are going down completely the wrong path. 

If they are simply approaching things differently and you believe there is a good chance that they’re not wrong, let things play out a little longer.

If you aren’t sure about what they’re doing and whether it’s simply different or if it’s potentially wrong – you can protect the downside by simply asking them about the approach they are using. Do this in a curious way and be genuinely curious – openly say that you’ve never used this approach before and would like to learn about it. 

Focus on the outcome of the task or project

This is key and should connect back to the brief that you gave to the team member when asking them to complete the task. Every single task needs to have a clear outcome so that you both know what success looks like.

When reviewing the work that someone is doing, focus very, very heavily on the outcome and ask yourself whether they will achieve this outcome with their current plan and approach. If they will, then you should let things continue and play out with a bit more confidence because they are likely to achieve the outcome. How they get there matters, but not as much as getting the right outcome.

Sure, they may do things differently or take a little longer than you may take, but this is pretty normal and not a strong reason to dive in and get them to change everything just because you’d do it differently. 

Encourage them to focus on the outcome

Leading on from this, be clear with them that the most important thing for them to focus on is achieving the right outcome. This can be done using the same approach that you’d use, or their own approach which is completely different, to some extent, it doesn’t matter too much – their focus is on meeting the brief and achieving the right outcome.

In fact, take the chance to encourage them to find their own ways of doing things and to experiment with different approaches, but keep them focused on achieving the right outcome in an efficient and effective way. Tell them to take initiative and innovate, but never forget to keep their eyes on the prize. If they do that, then you’re happy to give them freedom and autonomy, and want them to be open to feedback when you have it.

Feedback on efficiencies and effectiveness

As we’ve discussed, focusing on achieving the right outcome, even if it’s achieved via a different approach, is the right thing to do. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t give any feedback at all during the process to help ensure that the outcome is achieved in the most effective way possible.

If you spot ways that their approach is ways of working can be sped up or made more efficient, then it’s perfectly fine to deliver this feedback either in real time or after the task has been completed.

Be clear on what type of feedback that you’re delivering

Following on from this, ensure that when you’re delivering feedback to them, that you’re clear on the type of feedback it is. Make it clear that you’re giving them feedback on how to improve on what they are already doing – not that you’re asking them to completely change their approach to be closer to how you’d personally do the same work.

For example, tell them that they’re doing a good job and that you’re confident they will achieve the right outcome, even if they are doing things differently to how you’d personally do them. But you’d still like to give them feedback on a very specific part of the process, such as how they can incorporate another tool or method, or make things quicker somehow.

By doing this, you’re telling them that you don’t need them to conform to your way of doing things and are happy with them approaching things differently, but you can still help them learn and develop.

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