Saturday, March 26, 2011

Freedom to act (at work) -- whether you want to be a VP or not

About 30 years ago, I saw some fabulous presentations by William Oncken on the subject of "Managing Management Time." This was before I knew I didn't want to be a manager. But the videotapes had valuable information for anyone in organizational life. One such concept was that of the "Freedom scale."

You can find this scale online, for example on page 2 of this PDF or page 7 of this one. The scale looks something like this:

  1. Wait until told.
    This means don't ask, don't even think.
  2. Ask what to do.
    Don't suggest, don't recommend. Just ask.
  3. Recommend, and act with permission
    That is, don't act without permission
  4. Act and advise immediately.
    The boss hates surprises
  5. Routine reporting only
Conflict arises when the boss and a subordinate have different ideas of what freedom the subordinate should be working at. This can happen because the boss doesn't communicate well; or maybe the boss is internally conflicted. The issue could be with the subordinate, too: if I'm a subordinate who's lazy or afraid to act, I'll tend to operate at level 1 or 2 whereas the boss may want me to operate at level 3 or 4 (or maybe I'm just accustomed to being told what to do all the time). If I tend to be rash and not to have good judgment, I may want to operate at level 4 or 5, but the boss may want me to act at level 2 or 3 instead.

Some of these things can be made better by communicating directly what level of freedom someone should be working at with regard to certain issues. Maybe it needs to be put in writing. On a sign in the employee's office/cubicle.

But when someone has to operate at a different level than they're accustomed to, that takes some adjustment. Someone accustomed to waiting (level 1) or asking (level 2) may have to make a recommendation (level 3). Or in case of an error in judgment, they may have to switch from "act and advise" (4) to "recommend then act with permission" (3).

And the boss may have some adjustments to deal with too, if for example a subordinate asks what to do and the boss wants recommendations rather than just problem statements. Of course, adjustments take work from everyone. I'm not sure who it's harder on.

But whether you're only a subordinate or you're both a subordinate and a boss, the freedom scale can provide a way to clarify expectations.

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