In this sixth installment of our 12-part series on the characteristics of breakthrough performance, we examine the importance of having people experience autonomy and collaboration in their work.

Why do we so often look at a team and see the opposite of breakthrough performance?

Infighting, lack of alignment, uninspired action, and old ways of thinking are just as common across organizations as fresh perspectives, entrepreneurialism and accountability, but why?

Even in the 21st century, the prevailing paradigm for how organizations are structured comes from 19th century military hierarchies. The superior-subordinate paradigm is the model for relationships within militaries, and it is the paradigm in which most of us operate when we interact with colleagues at work; especially when we work with our boss.

The subordinate’s job is to divine and execute the intentions of their superiors with as much fidelity as possible. As the complexity of work increases, so does the challenge of executing a superior’s intentions.

The problem

The problem with this paradigm is that it robs people from experiencing a sense of autonomy and ownership over their environment. Insigniam’s 2014 Middle Management Survey found that one key challenge of facing middle managers is lack of decision-making authority. Plans are handed from superior to subordinate with little two-way communication about the likely breakdowns, actual breakdowns, or new approaches that people ‘on the ground’ see in their work.

In my work, I have seen many project teams tirelessly strive to meet goals that they knowingly think are impossible or imprudent. Over the long term, it is difficult to maintain commitment to a goal that you had little input in creating or choosing.

Autonomy and ownership are essential for breakthrough performance because they enable people to see and deliver results on opportunities beyond the timelines and goals their managers have instructed them to implement. They are also frequently cited as important aspects of a fulfilling work-life.

Start with collaboration

Overcoming the limitations of the current paradigm and realizing breakthrough performance require that we elicit the best kind of contribution from others. That can only come when people collaborate with those around them (yes, even their bosses) to create their work environment. This can include their action plans, strategies, organizational goals, reporting structures, etc.

Partnering with people around you is so simple. However, if you are like me, and the many leaders I work with, truly collaborating with others is something we do infrequently. Consider the following as opportunities to collaborate with your colleagues:

  • Request they use their perspective and perform a ‘feasibility check’ of project plans and department goals.
  • When breakdowns occur, ask their input on the root cause of the issue, absent blame of any one individual. In fact, breakdowns are often caused by chronic, structural issues in project management.
  • Make an effort to repeatedly ask people around you about their concerns, what they are unclear about, and how things could be changed to make their job easier.

Authentic commitment

For breakthrough performance to be realized, people must be authentically committed to the work they are doing. Having them actively participate in creating and contributing their work is the best way to cause a breakthrough in performance.

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