Scale of independence – leadership on a continuum

   In my working with leadership and organisation development in different countries and with people from many cultures I have developed a model to explain a system I am observing. I call it the scale of independence. Everywhere in the world any organisation can be placed on a scale from no independence in employees to all staff totally independent. 

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At the far out left is the "no indepence whatsoever" point. In an organisation placed here no employee takes own initiatives or make decisions of their own. Every employee does what he/she is told and when something goes wrong they wait for new instructions and/or for someone to fix it.

On the other end, far out to the right on the scale, employee independence is hitting the roof. In an organisation placed here every employee sets their own goals, work towards them and take full responsibility of it. If something goes wrong they figure out a solution and keep going.

In real world organisations, teams and companies are placed in between these two extremes on the scale of independence, some more to the left and some more to the right but usually not all the way in either direction. Assembly lines, formal structure companies and companies who often taken in beginners, have to train them quickly and have created routines for day to day work are examples of companies functioning well on the left side of the scale. Far out on the right side we find creative companies, agile organisations and their likes alongside with organisations requiring specialized skills in a changing surrounding.

Different levels of independence can be right

There is no right or wrong in being on different places on the scale per se. Different levels of independence can be accurate and suitable depending on what kind of organisation you are. At first glance people often perceive companies to the right as somehow better and high independence as the good thing but when we start digging a bit deeper it is not that simple.

McDonalds for example is one of the largest “first job employers” in many countries and have clear routines and a built hierarchy to ease learning, make sure service is good and that beginners can have a quick start. There is no room for creating your own master piece burger but on the other hand we as customers get our big mac and feel at home everywhere. We know what we will get. Everybody is happy with them being a low independence company, as employees grow stronger and develop new skills and higher independence they advance within the organisation and eventually most of them move on to new employers in next part of life. Burgers are served, profit is made, employment market is fed with trained co-workers and new people can start up working life. One example of a company firmly placed on the low independent part of the scale and rightfully so.

In fact when we start working on it most leaders back down a bit on how independent they actually want their employees to be. In places where a lot of workplaces are far to the right and tasks are specialised and demanding many leaders start by saying they wish their company was all the way to the right, topping the scale. But when we look further into it they all have company goals they prefer their employees to work towards rather than inventing their own ideas on what would be the right product, the right market and the right way to do it. Shared goals and co-operation automatically moves the organisation a little bit to the left. In fact, the only organisations that could fully benefit from being all the way out on the right end side of the scale are sole traders doing their thing. I am still to meet the employer who actually want to pay people a salary for coming in doing their thing, unrestrained by company goals and visions.

How can I use this as leader?

First thing to do is then to let go of the thought of there being something right or wrong. There are different places to be and that’s it. Depending on culture, branch of industry and a whole lot of factors different places on the scale seems like a good place to be. What would be relevant to discuss is questions like
“where are you in relation to where you want to be with your organisation?”
“what does it mean to your organisation being where you are on the scale?”
“what would moving your organisation in either way actually mean?”


How to manage spread of independence within the organisation

Within organisations we find people spreading on the same type of scale. Any given person has their own way of being, their own level of acquired skills and their frames to work within. We usually (but not always) move towards higher independence while developing our career but we have quite individual points on the scale where we are satisfied to be and moving more to the left to scale down or create room for other priorities is not uncommon either.

As you can imagine different positions on the scale puts different demands on leadership. The best leader on the left side is not acting and speaking the same way as the best leader on the right side of the scale. When organisation is low on employee independence leaders need to be higher on directive management skills, planning and handing out clearly defined tasks in a timely manner but would probably cause more confusion and stress than movement forward if focusing on inspirational speeches and visionary boards. When leading people on the right side of the scale there is less need for managing routines. Remember though, you probably still don’t want to be all the way out right where everybody is doing their thing. Checking results and providing frames at the right level of independence is a skill to master as a leader. Leaders in high employee independence organisations spend more of their time sharing and co-operating around goals, visions and the road ahead. Ensuring agreement on where organisation is going and inspiring staff to lean in and bring their thoughts.


Understanding the level of independence is your key to being a great leader

When people ask for the top five tips of good leadership there is really no good answer unless you know where on the independence scale the organisations is and where they want to be. Good leadership could maybe best be understood as applied awareness of the demands in organisations depending on level of employee independence.

Knowing yourself and how your personal leadership style affects people around you is key to make sure you get the right fit. You can adapt to many different levels but as a leader you have your scope where you are at your best. Don’t forget to develop yourself and your leadership skills if you want to move your organisation out of that scope or move yourself into a new position putting different demands on you.