The Tannenbaum and Schmidt Continuum: Delegated Freedom

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 16th January 2015

“How much power do I have?” is a natural question, especially for the aspirational and competitive leader, keen to impress and move on up the ladder.

Consider, though, how your display of power is viewed by others. To peers, it may be seen as a competitive or hostile act – certainly a political one. To upper management, it may appear to be a threat.

But perhaps it is most dangerous within the leader’s own team. Evidence suggests that a majority of our employees in the UK are not properly engaged by their leaders, operating 60-70% of full capacity.

If a key aim of leadership is to develop team capability (and it is), then refusing to empower members of your team is quite possibly one of the least intelligent decisions you can make as a leader.

The Tannenbaum and Schmidt Continuum: Delegated Freedom

The Tannenbaum and Schmidt Continuum

More than 50 years ago, two academics explored this in great depth. Their names were Tannenbaum and Schmidt, and their conclusions became known as the “Leadership Continuum” or the “7 Levels of Delegated Freedom”. Like so much fundamental leadership theory, we’ve known about this for decades, and yet so many of us refuse to accept it, or continue to ignore it.

Their research showed that a leader’s level of authority has a very significant impact on a team’s engagement, and is central to whether it can become high-performing. In essence, I’m saying to you: get this wrong and your team won’t engage, won’t perform and won’t get better. If that’s true for your team then I’m afraid that, as Lord Sugar might put it, “you’re fired”. Consider the seven levels below.

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Seven levels of delegated freedom

1. The manager takes a decision and announces it. All power is retained, with no team involvement.

2. The manager decides and “sells” the decision to the team. Power is still retained, but the team may raise some concerns.

3. The manager presents a decision with background ideas, and invites questions. The team understands the manager’s decision-making process, so there is more team involvement and understanding.

4. The manager suggests a provisional decision and invites discussion. The team can have a say on the manager’s decision, and it may change based on discussion.

5.  The manager presents the problem or situation, get suggestions, then decides. The team is free to come up with options, and the manager then decides on those options.

6. The manager explains the situation or problem, defines the parameters, and asks the team to decide on the solution. The manager delegates the decision to the team, but is still accountable for the outcome.

7. The manager allows the team to develop options and decide on the action, within the manager’s limit – delegated freedom. The team operates as the manager does at level 1.

The question is this: are you brave enough to push to regularly reach levels 6 and 7? Do you want your people to develop and grow, and to be more engaged and committed? Are you prepared to trust and empower your team to that degree?

And most important of all: if the answer to any of those questions is ‘no’, then why not? Where does the problem lie? In you or in them? Once you’ve decided the answer to that….

What are you going to do about it?

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