As a leader, one of the most important things you can do is empower your team to be in control of delivering results with the ability to make their own decisions. You want to provide enough room for the team to act autonomously while still providing enough direction to make sure they’re driving towards the desired objectives. Yet even with the best intentions, it can be a hard balance to find, especially for new leaders.

If you’re not sure why or how you should practice empowering your team, consider how it affects their performance and try the model we’ve used at Change.org as a way to get started.

Why autonomy matters

Recent research from Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman published in the Harvard Business Review suggests that giving more trust to your team can actually improve their performance. When they looked at teams of managers who gave higher and lower ratings on performance reviews, they found that managers who have more confidence in their teams tend to build higher performing teams.

When you give your team the space they need, they find creative ways of reaching their goals. If your vision and objectives are clear to them, and there are accountability measures in place, it can open up new approaches and new solutions to your business goals.

When people feel like they aren’t able to make most of the decisions needed to do their own jobs, it can lead to general feelings of lack of control, or even learned helplessness, and weaker performance.

So if we know it’s worthwhile to trust our teams and provide more autonomy for them to make independent decisions, how can we execute on that? And how can we do it in a way that’s clear, so everyone knows whose job it is to make which decisions?

90/10 decision making: An empowerment model

At Change.org, as well as other places I’ve worked, I’ve operated with what I call the 90/10 model for decision making. The core idea is that people should be able to make 90% of the decisions that are required for them to get their job done. The remaining 10% of decisions may require sign-off or approval from their manager. If this isn’t happening, either you’re asking people to do things that you shouldn’t be asking them to do, or you’re not empowering them as much as you should be.

One way that we’ve implemented the 90/10 model in some parts of Change.org is through a “traffic light” system, created by our Chief People Officer, Benjamin Joffe-Walt. Here’s how it works:

  • 90% of any given person’s decisions should be green — they can make those decisions on their own, without needing to check with anyone or get approval. (Note: People can still ask for input or even guidance on these “green” decisions, they just don’t require someone else’s approval.)
  • 5% of decisions are red — when the person knows they will definitely need to get the approval of a manager or senior leader. These are usually decisions that are hard to reverse, affect other areas of the organization, or have large budgets involved.
  • And 5% of decisions are yellow — for when people are not sure if it’s an approval-requiring red or a go-ahead green, at which point they should double-check with their manager to find out.

Creating structural clarity like this helps to ensure that (a) people get to make a sufficiently large percentage of their own decisions that they feel trusted and empowered, and (b) people have a common language for discussing decision making in a clear, non-threatening way with their managers.

Start with a decision log

A decision log can be a particularly helpful tool for tracking the decisions that are being made and who makes them. It can help in two ways:

First, it shows you whether you were actually able to make most of your decisions on your own (or can help you track this for someone on your team). If it turns out that’s not the case, the log provides a good starting point for open discussions between managers and direct reports. Focus on determining where the decision-making process is breaking down and how you can establish clearer expectations about who makes which decisions.

Second, it provides visibility for people on the team who weren’t involved in the decision. In leadership-level meetings at Google, we would track all of our major decisions and distribute the log to our full teams following the meeting. It created complete transparency about what decisions were made, by whom, and why.

There are many different decision log formats you can use. Here’s one we’ve created with Leadfully, incorporating the 90/10 model and the traffic light system for tracking it.

Steal this decision log template

Teams that feel more trusted and empowered to make the decisions that enable their work perform better, so it benefits us as managers to ensure that can happen. The 90/10 system and decision log can be helpful tools in that process — if you give them a try, let me know how they work for you.

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