On freedom and support

A tension I feel keenly as a manager and an individual is between structure and flexibility.

As a product of over twelve years of parochial schooling, I’m no stranger to structure. (And lots and lots of rules. And nuns.) Academically at least, kid-me thrived in that highly logical and carefully mapped set of routines. But by nature, I’m an adult who wants every day to feel new and different, who kind of hates predictability.

How does this translate to career? I see organizations struggle with leaders who cannot seem to earn the respect or best effort of their people because they:

-fail to provide basic vision
-micromanage unimportant things
-micromanage too-important things
-are simply sleepwalking — never seeing the strengths of the team right in front of them. (That’s a huge fear for me — that I’ll have a blind spot to some talent on my team.)

Here are some easy ways to avoid these pitfalls and strike a balance between freedom and support. (Hint: they apply to you as both an individual contributor and as a leader).
Try these methods with yourself or together as a team.

If you default toward chaos, and need more structure:

  • Each week, write a brief but explicit list of goals: three short term, two longer term (developing them as a group makes you all more accountable!)
  • Take 10 minutes to make a skills and strengths inventory (don’t over-think it). Share the lists and name the ‘masters’ of certain skills or work areas.
  • Gamify team or self improvement. Create a list of things you want to be better at. Then, build incentives (a latte!), deadlines (even arbitrary ones), and calendar appointments (so you aren’t interrupted) to encourage progress on areas needing improvement.

If you default toward routine, and need help innovating:

  • Specifically schedule an hour to experiment with new ideas, brainstorm, test, flip, let yourself fumble. (Do this in a room that isn’t your office).
  • Go talk to someone you don’t agree with, ask them an honest question – initiate a creative debate!
  • Create micro-pauses. Build tiny breaks in your day where you take a deep breath and clear your head for 5-10 seconds. Presence yourself. Either set your phone for a recurring alert 3-4 times per day or better yet, tie the pause to some habit you already have (like turning the key in your office door).

What boundaries keep you creative? I’m curious – let me know what you think.

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