Leadership Skills: Balancing Clear Direction with Creative Freedom

We have all felt micromanaged by a leader at some point; limited in our ability to decide how to do something or constantly critiqued for taking an approach we thought was best. On the other hand, many of us have also felt left on our own without enough guidance or support from our leader, unsure if we’re heading in the right direction and fulfilling expectations.

As a leader, it’s important to find the right balance between giving clear direction and autonomy for team members. Many leaders fall on one side of the spectrum; giving too much direction or too much independence. An imbalance between these two leadership vitals can cause suboptimal productivity, frustration, and expensive turnover for teams. When leaders find the balance between giving clear direction and independence to team members, the team accomplishes collective objectives with efficiency and enthusiasm. The team takes ownership of their work and makes progress with enthusiasm. The team produces new ideas and solutions because they have the space to learn. Do you give more direction or more independence to your team members? Why is it important to find the right balance? How can you give the right balance?   

Read below to diagnose your leadership style, identify your blind spots, and discover solutions for how you can lead your team toward new potential.

 

 

Style 1: You give excess Direction, not enough Autonomy & Creative Freedom

As a leader, a key responsibility is to clearly articulate team objectives and give team members direction. However, many leaders are excessive in giving direction and this can turn into micromanagement. This often frustrates team members because team members feel a lack of autonomy and trust.  Excess direction also limits team members from learning by trying things on their own and coming up with their own creative ideas and approaches. There is a fine line between clear direction and micromanagement, but giving the right amount of direction is important for team members to feel clear about objectives and supported, while not feeling a lack of trust or autonomy.

Symptoms your team members lack Autonomy & Creative Freedom…

  • Team members feel micromanaged and don’t take ownership of their work
  • Team members are given tedious tasks to do, with no growth opportunities or special challenge projects
  • Team members ask you (the leader) for help with small tasks they should know how to do
  • Team members are criticized more than acknowledged for the work they do
  • Team members are told to not communicate with people outside of your immediate team
  • Requests for resources, travel, or special projects are shot down

 

Style 2: You give excess Independence, not enough Direction & Guidance 

On the other hand, some leaders give team members a lot of independence. They allow team members to prioritize tasks and projects on their own. They encourage team members to experiment and design how to approach challenges on their own. Driven, intelligent team members usually prefer this kind of hands-off leadership but this style because it allows space for learning and creativity. However, this style can sometimes lead to frustration when the team objectives, individual expectations, priorities, or guidance aren’t clear or sufficient. Team members don’t know if they are fulfilling expectations or feel disconnected from the team’s collective progress. Excessive independence works if team members ask for help when they need it, but often too little guidance leaves team members feeling a lack of support and connection.

Symptoms your team members lack Clear Direction, & Guidance…

  • Team members are unclear about what the team’s objectives are and what is required of each person in order to fulfill expectations
  • Team members have more than five competing priorities at once, they are not sure what their key priorities are for this week or today
  • The team leaves meetings not knowing what the follow-ups are
  • Team members receive direction and guidance sporadically; you don’t have consistent a consistent way of giving guidance
  • Team members receive direction from multiple people, sometimes people that are not their leader

 

 

Do you tend to give excess direction or excess independence? Maybe you’re in balance. If you’re unsure, observe. Dedicated, unbiased observation is always the strongest, most powerful form of feedback. You can also ask your team members for honest feedback.

 

How to Give a Balance Clarity and Freedom

Even the most experienced leaders must learn and practice ways of balancing direction and autonomy in everyday leadership that are accessible. How can you find the right balance of clear direction and creative autonomy for your team members? Through actions.

Solution 1: Team Vision Map 

The first and most important way to foster clear direction is to articulate the Team Vision to your team on a regular basis. You can do this by reviewing the Team Vision Map at a weekly team meeting. A Team Vision Map shows all the tasks for the week, with clear delegation and timelines. Articulating the Team Vision Map in a weekly team meeting is an ideal way of giving direction because you articulate the overall Vision, who is responsible for what tasks, and when they should be completed. However, you don’t tell team members exactly how to go about doing their tasks. You leave room for them to practice discernment and creativity… to take leadership of their own work!

Below is the general structure and an example of a Team Vision Map (click to download).

Team Vision Map from Awake Leadership
Team Vision Map Structure (Awake Leadership)

 

Team Vision Map (Awake Leadership Example)
Team Vision Map (Awake Leadership Example)

 

Solution 2: One-on-One Meetings

Once you align the team around the Vision, make sure to have weekly one-on-one meetings with each team member. Weekly one-on-one meetings are important for checking in, answering questions, and giving feedback so team members feel adequately supported as they work on their tasks toward the Vision. Every team member needs a different amount of direction and autonomy to progress with efficiency and enthusiasm toward their potential. One-on-one meetings make the cohesive Vision a reality.

Giving clear Vision without telling exactly how and without checking in too often gives your team both clarity in terms of expectations and freedom in terms of execution. You can keep a pulse on how progress is going by having one-on-one meetings weekly to offer support and feedback. Then, return to the Vision and repeat. There are many more exercises and tips for balancing clarity and freedom in the Awake Leadership guidebook. I explain step-by-step how to make a Team Vision Map and offer many more exercises for aligning your team and strengthening your leadership.

Remember that seemingly small leadership techniques and exercises make a big difference in terms of your team’s productivity and culture. Excess or lack of either clear direction or autonomy causes frustration, burnout, redundant work, lack of ownership, and sub-optimal productivity. It’s up to leaders to solve these imbalances and set team members up for success, individually and collectively. Balancing clarity and creative freedom will enable your team to reach your objectives with efficiency and enthusiasm.

 

What’s Next?

Learn more simple yet powerful actions for how to balance clear direction and creative freedom in Awake Leadership. The guidebook is a system and How-To guide for creative leaders. It contains essential exercises for curing the symptoms above and balancing your leadership style.

Awake Leadership Guidebooks

 

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