I had coffee with some early career information professionals a short while back and asked them about what they liked and didn’t like about their current organization. One thing that came up was that they both appreciated having autonomy to get their work done. The flipside to employee autonomy is certainty that management will be supportive. It seems to me that you can’t have the one without the other.

Those professionals work on my teams, so I was gratified that they felt they had autonomy. That’s not meant as a #humblebrag. It reflects well on me, but only because their immediate managers are really good at leading their teams. Our teams tend to be happy and it takes dedicated effort to know whether we’re succeeding.

Relationships Matter

If you manage people, you create a trust relationship with them. Heck, if you have any kind of relationship with someone, you have a trust relationship with them. It can be weak or it can be strong. It takes time to build up and it can be destroyed by others. It can be hard to measure.

If you suffer from imposter syndrome, you can be uncertain about whether your staff trust you, or whether you are trusted by your superiors. In some cases you can ask, although it can be awkward. In most situations, you have to look at your actions and their reactions.

As a library director, I’ve been both at the summit of the organization as well as a middle manager. In the latter (current) case, while I’m at the top of the library, I have a C-suite above me and a CEO above that. In other cases, I reported directly to a governance board. Where you are in the chain of command matters, because it will impact the trust relationships you have.

Ok, this is probably just a brag, but a supervisor once told me, “your superpower is trust.” I’m not a big fan of describing people as having “superpowers” but you take compliments where you get them.

She’s right, though, in that building trust with my teams and maintaining that trust is important to me. When I’m faced with situations that are likely to damage that trust, I try to find ways to avoid them, preferably by providing input before they go into effect. In some cases, you just have to communicate as well as you can why something is happening. Consistent honest communication is a building block to trust.

The trust relationship is pretty simple: I trust people to get their work done professionally and they trust me to make sure they, and their team, have the resources they need to get the work done.

I had a web developer team reporting to me for awhile and priorities were an issue. As you can imagine, some people would contact the devs directly and try to get a project done, creating conflict for the devs. There’s a tricky balance between having your devs connected to business units and putting them in a bind. My role was to say no, which got the devs off the hook and allowed us to keep priorities.

Autonomy is good. Happy staff is a good outcome. But the manager has to make a conscious decision to allow autonomy by creating certainty. I hadn’t really thought to much about that until recently.

Uncertainty Impacts Your Environment

A person in a similar organization and I were discussing our teams and management and one of the ideas that came up focused on that same idea of autonomy. As a manager, you try to give your staff the scope to be autonomous. As someone else’s direct report, whether governance board or C-suite, you look for the same latitude. I’m a subject matter expert and a manager, so it sometimes feels more complicated.

What became clear from our conversation was that, as she described her environment, what she was lacking was certainty. Given a repeatable event, her boss would respond in a variety of ways. Some were supportive, others were not. There was no pattern to the outcomes, and so it made it difficult to act because you couldn’t rely on being supported.

For me, the opposite of autonomy is behavior like micro-managing, where everything you do is directed. There’s a peer manager who checks through her team’s recycling bins, to make sure they’re recycling properly. Not for confidential information; for paper vs. plastic. The fact that the story of that manager has circulated speaks for itself. Managers should be deliberate in taking actions – and reviewing those actions – to understand why staff react the way they do.

There are many roads to damaging autonomy when you create uncertainty for your team. If your management style is either directive (“do it this way”) or uncertain (“I’ll tell you after you do it”), you can have the same outcome. Staff will stop acting, since it is no longer clear that they can make choices – and be supported – by management.

Another way to create uncertainty is to purposefully make things ambiguous. I was talking to a manager in HR the other day. I mentioned off handedly that I’d given someone a job reference, and was immediately told that “the organization prohibits employees from” doing that.

I was surprised, since it’s such a common professional activity for managers, particularly for people you want to see succeed. When I asked what the policy was, I was told it wasn’t a policy so much as a “practice”. Undocumented, uncommunicated.

And once known, the employee has to decide whether to follow it or not. Since it’s not a policy, there’s no accountability or repercussions. But it’s communicated as if it’s forbidden. If it’s important as a risk avoidance tool, it should be properly documented and communicated. Otherwise it creates uncertainty about how to act.

Certainty Trickles Down

You can’t force people to act in a way to create certainty. Bad managers are everywhere. You may be able to be more proactive by trying to strengthen your relationship with superiors, but there’s a limit to what you can do. My primary goal is always to create certainty below my position; if I can get it myself, that’s icing on the cake.

As I said before, where you are in the hierarchy matters. A governance board will usually be led by a chair and there may be committee chairs. Your performance review is done by the personnel committee chair, for example, while your library audit involves your finance chair. Your relationships with those people create the environment for autonomy and certainty.

If you are more levels down within an organization, it is different. Not better or worse, but you may have less opportunity to interact with a managing partner, academic dean, or CEO than you do with your immediate boss. If any of those people create uncertainty for their subordinates, that uncertainty can trickle down through the organization until it reaches a manager who stems the tide.

It can also mean that you don’t know whether uncertainty on the part of your direct manager is because they’re uncertain, or because they have lost their own autonomy. You can only gauge their reactions to your actions. More often than I would have expected, I’ve been told to “just do it” in a way that was out of character, exhibiting some unseen pressure to do something inadvisable.

If you’re in the middle of this cascade, the best thing you can do is to shield your staff from the uncertainty above you. If they raise an issue which will reach into that area – a decision that isn’t isolated to your teams – then you need to communicate to them about the possibility of uncertainty. It can mean coming up with alternative approaches to get to the desired goal, or extra work to prepare for someone second-guessing the team’s subject matter expertise. The goal should be to continue to allow them to move forward, while managing the uncertainty.

Coffee with my colleague didn’t solve anything. But it was good to share experiences about how to maintain trust relationships with our teams even when we worked in uncertainty. I think we both went back to work with some new ideas to try.