Five Degrees of Freedom



by John Scherer

This is my version of a concept developed by William Oncken, a pioneer in management science, which is described in his book, Managing Management Time.

How many times have you wished that you could let your people operate with more freedom? We hear it all the time. From the Boss: ‘I would like to delegate more to my people but they’re just not ready.’ From the people: ‘My boss doesn’t trust me. Why was I hired if I can’t be trusted to make decisions on my own?!’ 

The fact is, that–as much as we’d like to wish otherwise – trust in the form of freedom to manage your own affairs in an organization usually has to be earned. What follows is a model showing one way to understand a boss’ willingness to let a subordinate do what they think is needed. It is essentially a graduated scale of ways a manager can relate to a boss, starting at the bottom with little or no freedom for the subordinate, and ending up at the top with the subordinate having a great deal of autonomy.  

The model is founded on several assumptions: 

 In most organizations, autonomy or freedom is not an inalienable right which comes with being hired. It must be earned

 The boss is the one who grants the autonomy–or doesn’t. 

Even a complete lack of trust can be overcome gradually, using this model in a context of both the boss and the subordinate being willing to make it work.

The First Degree of Freedom: 
I can act on my own and report to my boss periodically.
The Second Degree of Freedom: 
I act on my own and report to my boss immediately.
The Third Degree of Freedom: 
I make a recommendation to my boss, get approval, act and report immediately.

————————————- ‘T h e L i n e’ —————————————-

The Fourth Degree of Freedom: 
I ask my boss ‘What do you want me to do?’ then do it, and report immediately.
The Fifth Degree of Freedom: 
I wait for my boss to tell me what to do, do it, and report immediately.

The three variables working in the model are INITIATIVE, TIMING and the CONTENT of what gets done, who influences when something gets done and what it is that gets done. Since the degree of freedom you allow a team member is in direct proportion to your anxiety about how they’ll do on a specific task or project, it is clear that you must get clear with your people about where you see them now, and what  they need to do to move up the ladder.

We like to suggest to our clients that they never settle for anything below Level Three, as either a boss or as a subordinate. There is a great deal of top-down control below the line, accompanied by an unacceptable level of de-motivation and very slow action-taking ability. An organization characterized by levels Four and Five will get beat every time by another operating above the line, even if more mistakes are made. In the ‘white water’ of today’s business environment, making mistakes and moving  rapidly to correct them is better than doing everything ‘right’ but not being able to do very much at all. 

If you do not trust one of your people on a part of their work, meet with them, share this model, and work out what they need to do to earn the right to move up one level with you. Then stick with your agreements. If the subordinate fails badly, meet with them and decide together whether to move back one degree or try again. You must both be working toward the First Degree of Freedom as soon as possible. If you are a boss reading this and you have a subordinate whom you do not trust enough,  review this model with them honestly and get to work moving up to the First Degree. You and your subordinate will be happier and the organization will a lot closer to the high-performance it desires and demands from both of you,

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