Give Away Your Power To Improve Team Performance

As a business owner or leader of any kind, devolving your power and giving your team autonomy has a key role in optimising performance. Autonomy is a major motivator. It will allow your team to become leaders themselves, take responsibility for their actions, form creative solutions to problems, be more productive and as a result perform better.

But what is autonomy and why is it important?

Self-Determination Theory

Psychologists previously mentioned in my blog posts – Edward Deci and Richard Ryan – formed their theory of Self-Determination in the late 1970s. This holds that humans have three innate psychological needs – competence, autonomy and relatedness. They say that when these needs are satisfied, we are motivated, productive and happy. When these needs are suppressed our motivation, productivity and happiness decrease substantially.

Research conducted by Deci and Ryan, as well as many others in the field, have found that it is autonomy which is the strongest of the three needs. That is, granting or taking away autonomy has the biggest impact on motivation and performance. For example, a study of 320 businesses, half of which granted workers autonomy and half relying on top-down autocratic control. The businesses with autonomous workers grew at four times the rate of the control-oriented businesses and had a third less staff turnover. Also a study which found that autonomous motivation leads to greater understanding, better grades and more persistence in schools.

Autonomous Motivation ‘involves behaving with a full sense of volition and choice, whereas Controlled Motivation involves behaving with the experience that comes from pressures and demands towards specific outcomes that comes from forces perceived to be external to the self’.

Giving people autonomy over what they do, then, can be seen as the best way to positively impact motivation and productivity. However, there are other reasons why you need to devolve power to your team.

Today’s World is Complex

In 1980, half of the world’s 4.4 billion people where either so poor that they were cut off from the rest of humanity, or lived in a country so oppressed by its regime, that they had no connection with those outside it. However, during the 80s, 90s and 00s a shift in social and technological factors meant that things which were once separate have the ability to bump against each other, sometimes with unexpected results.

The decreasing cost of computing power, digitisation of huge amounts of information, the ease with which content can now be communicated across vast distances and the increasing wealth of the human population as a whole have meant that there are far more possible interactions between the constituent parts of the systems on which the world operates. I’m not just talking about technological systems but economic, social and all other systems as well.

The fact that there are now so many more possibilities for interactions, has meant that it is far less easy to predict the outcome of situations. In other words, what used to be complicated has now become complex.

As a result of this unpredictability, it is increasingly important for organisations to be aware of and responsive to changes in their own environment and the world around them. Today’s world can be described well by a military term – VUCA. This acronym stands for Volatile, Unpredictable, Complex and Ambiguous.

In a VUCA world, reactivity is key. How do we adapt as quickly as we can to this VUCA world? One of the answers lies in devolving power to our team, creating autonomy and allowing people to make decisions in the field. As Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter has concluded in her research on devolving power to employees in the workplace, ‘the degree to which the opportunity to use power effectively is granted to or withheld from individuals is one operative difference between those companies which stagnate and those which innovate’.

As a leader, you cannot hope to be able to predict the future of your business yourself, there are now too many variables in play. You must give power to your ‘troops on the ground’ who can feed back information as it arises, allowing the ability to be more reactive to situations.

Decision Making

However, it is not enough to quickly receive information about today’s ever-changing situations. Improvements in technology allowing instant communication around the world, have meant that decision making has become slower.

In his book Team of Teams, General Stanley McCrystal says that during the Joint Special Operations Task Force effort in Iraq starting in 2003, the real-time information being fed to central command meant that Leaders felt compelled to withhold authority on decisions of significant importance. As a result, during the course of their efforts, the hierarchical decision making process sometimes caused them to miss fleeting opportunities and that the ‘aggregate effects [of delayed decisions] were crippling’.

He concluded that the wait for a rubber stamp to approve matters was not resulting in making better decisions. He wanted to shift the premise to one where the ‘best possible decision could be made in a time frame that allowed it to be relevant’ and therefore devolved the decision-making power to those on the ground who could make it in a timely fashion. They found that, having struggled against an Al-Qaida force with little formal structure that could seemingly change and adapt on a whim, by allowing those in the heat of the battle to make the decisions for themselves, they changed the course of action and began succeeding when previously they were literally fighting a losing battle.

The New Zealand All Blacks rugby team has created a way of devolving power to their players, which has made them the most successful team in World Rugby. Here, not only do they allow the players to take control of training in the lead up to a game, but they have created a team of leaders, each responsible for decisions on and off the field. When this was implemented, coach Graham Henry gave several senior players each a distinct portfolio of responsibilities. These ranged from on-field leadership of particular aspects of the game, to social organisations, new-player mentoring and community relations.

In a typical week before a game, the management will give a few pointers during a Sunday evening review meeting, which is predominantly led by on-field leaders. Then over the course of the week, more of the responsibility goes to the players to decide what to work on in training and its intensity. Come match day, the coaches don’t need to give a rousing speech. As Henry says ‘the time before they run out on the field, is their time. They’ve got to get their own minds right and settled on the job’. He also says that ‘duel leadership was very important to our success, perhaps the reason for that success’.

By getting your team to make decisions for themselves and not withholding power, your team can become more reactive to situations as they arise. Deciding by themselves to take the best course of action possible. Our now complex world brings unpredictability, being able to react to situations in real time is essential for success. Entrusting your team with the autonomy to make their own decisions in all situations will not only motivate them, but will future-proof your efforts.


Giving team members the power to opt-in to projects allows autonomy of a different kind. This is the operating system on which many of the tools you use everyday have been created and improved.

A survey in 2015 found that 78% of companies were running at least part of their systems on Open Source Software (OSS). OSS is one of today’s most important technological advances.

In 2007, a website called, which caters to open source software developers, listed 150,000 open source projects and nearly 1.6 million contributors. OSS has crowd sourced the creative spirit of its community by allowing individuals around the world to collaborate with each other to bug-fix, improve and expand feature sets.

Companies are now not only running their systems on OSS but opening the code to their own systems to the OSS community. Two of the world’s biggest companies – Walmart and ExxonMobil – now release the code of their systems to the OSS community as it is seen as the best way for them to improve and develop these.

What can the success of OSS be attributed to? It can only be that there is an open invitation to contribute. All you need to be able to have an impact is a knowledge of code. There is no prejudice about who is and who isn’t qualified to contribute and the approval process for whether your efforts are adopted are transparent. It is the ultimate creative outlet for people with a passion for code and forming elegant solutions to problems. As a Microsoft engineer wrote in a 1998 internal memo, leaked to the press, ’The ability of the OSS process to collect and harness the collective IQ of thousands of individuals across the Internet is simply amazing..’.

Opting-in has also famously devised some of Google’s best products, such as Gmail and Google Maps, which grew from pet projects conceived during 20 percent time. 20 percent time was the ability for Googlers to spend this amount of their week on whatever project they wanted. The very premise of 20 percent time is that each person opts-in to their own project or someone else’s to which they can add their skill set. Google has since rescinded 20 percent time for employees. However, this does not mean that innovation has stopped at the company. Google is now at a size where it must focus operations on the many products it has created. Employees are still encouraged to work on a side project, they must simply check first with managers before spending company time on it.

It isn’t just recent software innovations which have come about by allowing employees to opt-in to a project. Post-It notes, an invention formed by a failed experiment to produce super-adhesive glue, was originally a side project for scientist Art Fry at 3M in the 1970s. At the time, 3M had a policy in which employees could spend 15 percent of their time on projects of their choosing. This product has been one of 3M’s most successful, being available in six hundred different forms, in one hundred countries around the world.

Whilst you might be having convulsions at the potential inefficiencies of giving your team the power to opt-in to whatever project they want, taking valuable focus away from their day to day tasks and functions. It is important to note that Atlassian, a company that has had 20 percent time for employees in place since the early 00s, reports that employees use substantially less than the time allocated to them as ‘they didn’t want to let down their current teammates by abandoning ongoing projects’. The company credits the ability to opt-in as a key reason for their growth to a turnover of more than $450 million since starting in 2002.

I would argue that any inefficiency an opt-in policy might bring will be heavily outweighed by opportunities that come about from self-directed time, which otherwise would have been overlooked. In addition, your team will be fully engaged and have maximum productivity. All from you having the courage to devolve enough power for them to experience the ultimate in Autonomous Motivation, the ability to spend at least some of their time working in a way which we were all born to be – curious and self-directed.

Do You Have The Courage?

My challenge to you, as a leader of any kind, is to have the courage to devolve your power to your team. Allow your team members to be autonomous in what they do, how they do it, in the decisions that they make and in how they direct their time.

Leaders in the examples above, from the worlds of business, sports and the military, have all had the courage to devolve their power and have seen their team’s performance improve as a result. All of these individuals display what is known as Level 5 Leadership, those who have the humility to ask their team to collaborate with them for optimal performance.

Do you have what it takes to be a Level 5 leader and give your power away?

I would welcome your thoughts and comments. Please post if you have something to add.


5 Step Process for Improving Team Performance

In order to improve the performance of teams that I have consulted with and coached, I go through this five step process to obtain the best possible results. You can apply this to your team as well, so that they become a Top-Flight Team.

These five steps are simple to perform and execute. They allow you to find roadblocks in the team’s performance and obtain their commitment to change these for better results. The five steps are outlined as follows – 1. Understand context, 2. Define issues affecting performance, 3. Focus on awareness of the team, 4. Gain and embed a commitment to change and 5. Measure progress and obtain feedback.

These steps must be performed in sequence and you must not move on to the next step until you have exhausted your options in the step you are currently engaged in. This will ensure that you have extracted the maximum potential for improvement possible at that time. If you feel that, whilst going through the steps, that there could be more that the team can give, then simply repeat until you have gained the maximum you can.

Here are the steps with further explanation. The example I will use to demonstrate each step is of a recent rowing crew that I coached –

  1. Understand context

An objective, holistic view of the team and other elements that it interacts with, such as environment or market must be taken and reviewed. This is so that the team’s performance can be seen in relation to its constituent parts and those around it which may affect performance. This could take the form of research into the team, its efforts, what tasks it performs and the market it is in. You must have a wider view of the situation and a good understanding of how the team could move forward before moving on. It is key to understand the motivations behind how the team wants to perform and also the language that they use to communicate, otherwise you will miss the underlying reasons for underperformance and will not be heard when discussing them.

The crew I recently coached had consistently placed in the middle of the pack in races over the summer season. Relative to their opposition they were no worse off with physiological attributes and proficiency in the sport. However, they seemed to be unable to break through their glass ceiling. I sat down and reviewed each of their performances relative to the competition in each of the races they had completed recently and also looked at performances in different racing categories for comparison.

  1. Define Issues Affecting Performance

By having an open mind in analysis of the holistic view in which the team performs it soon becomes evident where potential issues might arise. In this Step you must hone in on the one, two, or three at maximum, critical issues leading to underperformance. It is important to engage the team in this process so that they start to become more aware of their situation and analytical in their thinking about the way in which they perform. It is great if you can collect some data at this stage to back up your analysis and objectively look at this relative to the contextual picture you have created in Step 1, to back up your case for change leading to improved performance.

With the crew, it was obvious that, although they were finishing races in the middle of the pack, they started races off the pace by some distance. After the first quarter of the race had taken place, the crew would be behind relative to the competition at all times, giving themselves work to do to come back on the field at the end. Getting 9 individuals to move a boat from standstill to race pace is a complicated process. Much like the combustion engine in a car, the constitute parts must work in unison with the correct timing otherwise a misfire would take place. All this is taking place whilst going up through the gears from stationary. Today’s cars have sophisticated electronic systems to govern timing. The added complication in a rowing boat is that it has nine brains which are not interconnected, each being affected by nerves, stress and the monkey mind in different ways. We knew that, biomechanically speaking, our start procedure would be effective, somehow the application of it wasn’t.

  1. Focus on awareness of the team

In this step you should coach the team to be more aware of their situation and get them to take ownership of the issues at hand as well as solutions to relieve them. I use the GROW method to gain self-awareness in the team. GROW stands for Goals, Reality, Options and When/Where/Which/What. This gives a framework on which to take the team through the roadblocks in place, work towards taking ownership of these and creating ways of overcoming them. It is important to set Goals first in this framework, before tackling reality, as this will allow the team to be more creative with the Options stage in devising solutions.

By simply looking at the data available from the races which they had entered, the crew quickly realised that their start protocol was not as effective relative to the competition. By going through the GROW framework with the crew as a whole, we were able to set a Goal of being ahead of our opposition after a quarter race distance. As the crew talked about their goal and looked at the reality of the situation they started to discuss their individual application of the protocol at the start of the races that had taken place. By becoming more aware of how each of them was applying themselves to the process they realised that there were individual inconsistencies.

During a rowing race start the strokes begin shorter than usual and build up to full length over time. In this instance, the length of their strokes were out of alignment with each other. When some of the crew were at half-length stroke, others were fractionally longer leading to their oars being out of time. This is like they crew taking one, two or three people out of the boat and racing against a boat with the full compliment of rowers. By not applying themselves in exactly the same time in exactly the same way, they open up a deficiency of propulsion of the boat. For the crew, this was only very subtle. In fact we were not able to detect this visually, but in a sport fought in inches, subtlety matters.

They became more self-aware of what they were doing relative to their crew mates. They were also able, with me, to come to a consensus of how to apply themselves as a unit to get the most speed out of the boat possible. They led the process of creating the consensus which was very prescriptive, whilst still having a solution which could be adapted if required. Hopefully this would eliminate the roadblock to the performance they sought.

  1. Gain and embed a commitment to change

As part of the GROW method, by enabling your team to take ownership of the roadblocks to performance and by becoming self-aware of the situation, the process will naturally lead to the team committing to change the reality they face and the solutions to seek the performance that is required. However, you must ensure that you gain commitment, not just verbally or in writing, but in the actions they take. If possible, it is important to use data to track performance of the solutions to roadblocks put in place by the team. That way there is immediate feedback, which can be communicated to the team, making sure that the team, with their new self-awareness, can see the fruits of their labours. This will embed the change as the team realise that they have taken ownership of the situation, applied themselves to create solutions to roadblocks and are performing better as a result.

With the rowing crew we were able to test their solutions to the problems we found in the start protocol in training. Once they were comfortable with the new process that came about through their consensus, we were able to give them feedback using GPS tracking data to show them the change in speed they would have during the first quarter of a race. Although the new process would mean that they faced further duress during the race start, it would put them under a little more physiological stress, they came to understand that this was worth the cost, knowing their pace relative to others as the race progressed was good. Again, they were able to reflect on this through the self-awareness they had gained from Step 3.

  1. Measure progress and obtain feedback

Here it is helpful to use the metrics established in Steps 1 and 2 to review the team’s performance before and after the solutions to roadblocks have been discovered. These can be shown to the team to further embed the change they took ownership of establishing. Also at this stage it is important for you to obtain feedback from the team in order to make sure that individuals believe in the change and to ascertain whether any improvements can be made to the process the next time change needs to take place.

By this time the crew were ready for their final big race of the season, which they had been working towards for nine months. Having developed the awareness themselves and created the improvements to their start protocol in the preceding few weeks, they felt ready to take their opposition. A few days before the race, we decided to test the crew against opposition who, on paper, would be stronger than them. We arranged a short race against a boat from the United States that were talented and we knew would be very strong, containing athletes that had been recruited to their team due to their athletic ability. Of the two races, we lost the first narrowly. However, as they had created a way of adapting the start protocol to the situation, the crew were able to change their effort. In the second race, they beat the boat from the US by a much greater margin that they had lost the previous time. This was an overachieving result for the crew, even though it was just in practice. A crew from our club had not raced and beaten a boat of that caliber for a very long time. In fact, no one at the club could remember when they had. This proved a fantastic measure for the crew, gave them and me the feedback we required and demonstrated that the protocol which they had put in place worked very effectively.

A few days later on race day, the crew beat their local rivals, a club that they had lost to previously in the season and a club that we had not beaten for over 20 years. It is difficult to say with certainty, due to changing environmental conditions at races, but we estimate that the crew increased their speed by around 8 seconds over a 2000m course. That is a significant amount in a sport won or lost by very small margins. All that for no additional physiological improvement required by the athletes, simply by working more effectively together.

It might sound simplistic that the 5 Step process applied to a rowing boat could improve their performance. However, without going through the steps, making sure that we covered each fully, we would not have uncovered the roadblocks to improvement. The individuals in the crew would not have realised that they were all thinking slightly differently on each stroke during the start protocol and hence performing each differently from one another. In a race of around 230 rowing strokes, each must be maximised to achieve the fastest time. Being aware of what they were doing relative to each other allowed them to realise this and come to a consensus to work together as a team better to improve their performance.

By enabling self-awareness and taking ownership of small wins, any team, be it in business, academia or sport, can improve their performance.