Leading Teams – Flexibility or Structure?

Recently, I was having a conversation with a manager that leads a six-person team. The team is made of both inexperienced and experienced members. There are moderate and high performance, but no low performers. We were discussing the extent to which a manager allows flexibility to team members in regards to hours of work, location of work, one-on-one meetings, and methods of work.

This is a complex issue and there is not just one answer. However, there are some guiding principles to consider when giving team members more flexibility.

Keep the Highest Goals in Mind

The first guiding principle is to keep the highest goals in mind. In my experience, there are two primary goals for every team. These goals are team cohesion and results. Team cohesion is the “chemistry” of the team that focuses on team trust, transparent communication, and positive attitude. Results is about getting stuff done with efficiency and excellence. Team members have clear roles and responsibilities and know how to do the work. They are focused on the right goals with the right skills.

If, Then

The second guiding principle is what I will call “If, Then”. It goes like this:

  • If the team consistently reaches the highest goals (cohesion and results), then more flexibility is given.
  • If the team does not consistently reach the highest goals (cohesion and results), then less flexibility is given.
  • If the team is not even close to reaching the highest goals, then more structure is necessary.

Structure, then Flexibility

The final principle is to start with more structure and less flexibility, especially with a new team or new team member. There is one primary reason for this. It is more difficult to take flexibility away then it is to give it. If you start by giving too much flexibility, and the team does not reach its primary goals (cohesion and results), then more structure is necessary. This loss of freedom (flexibility) most likely will cause the team’s morale to decrease, putting you and the team in a more difficult spot with one another. However, starting with more structure and gradually giving flexibility allows team members the opportunity to demonstrate they can handle the freedom. When flexibility is earned and received, morale will increase.

As a team leader, keep in mind the two primary goals (cohesion and results), be aware of the “If, Then” equation, and recognize when to provide structure and flexibility. These are principles to keep the team focused, motivated, and performing well.