Claim Your Freedom at Work

Harvard Business Review

Sometimes we have to be shocked into seeing something that was there all along.

For a senior executive I'll call Karen, one of those defining moments came most unexpectedly when her boss tried to give her a one-line performance review for the third year in a row.

Before Karen was promoted to vice president, her annual evaluations had included detailed comments that guided her professional growth. This year, she was determined to elicit specific feedback, especially since she had just endured a stressful year leading a major project that defined the company's future.

But when she pressed for more specifics, the president simply said, "I trust you to continue doing what you do so well, and I expect you'll ask for my help if you need it."

In that moment, she realized something profound: He was telling her that she was free. She was in charge of her own considerable domain — and her own life. Somehow, amid the pressures to meet operational goals and balance budgets, she had failed to notice the full implications of that shift.

She wanted to make sure she understood correctly. "You mean to say that I can push the envelope as far as I want, as long as I believe it is in the best interest of the company, and you'll tell me when I've gone too far?"

He nodded his agreement. She was buoyed by the possibilities that her newfound freedom presented, and at the same time, she felt the weight of the responsibility this change implied. Before she even made it to the door, Karen started thinking about how she could take ownership — and advantage — of this situation.

What opportunities are right in front of you that you've yet to notice? I had one of those "aha" moments a few years ago when my then eight-year-old son asked me to pour him a glass of milk. As usual, I reflexively rose to get it for him even though he was standing right next to the refrigerator. This time, however, I noticed that he could easily reach everything he needed to get it for himself and probably could have done so for a couple of years already. Now that I'd noticed, I told him he could get his own milk from now on. Emptying the dishwasher soon made its way onto his chore list too.

Once back in her office, Karen acknowledged to herself that she'd been getting little pleasure from her work in the past several months. An increase in regulatory scrutiny in her industry required her to spend a great deal of time on compliance matters that bored her. She thought about how she could experience more joy at work. It would clearly require spending more time on projects she enjoyed and less on efforts that left her feeling drained. But how could she pull that off?

As she considered her options, she remembered that one of her colleagues had once contemplated a legal career. She wondered if he would be interested in taking over her compliance work. To her delight, he was excited to take on this project, which would involve his working extensively with the firm's in-house counsel. In exchange, Karen took on one of his projects, an initiative that played more to her strengths in operations and large-scale project management and involved working with a vendor to implement a new computerized business-support system.

Once she was aware of her freedom, she took full advantage of it. In the process of breaking free of her least-favorite responsibility, she helped a colleague find more pleasure in his own work. What's more, this redistribution of responsibilities better matched their respective skill sets. Within a few short weeks, both initiatives had advanced much more quickly than they had in the previous months.

Like Karen, you probably have more latitude to define your work than you realize. If you were free to approach your work differently, what would you change in order to boost your satisfaction and effectiveness?

  • Give yourself time to think about your professional experience. What can you do to increase the percentage of your time devoted to projects that bring you joy and fulfillment?
  • Give careful consideration to what you and your teammates can do to boost your levels of engagement, enjoyment, and contribution.

A major reason Karen hadn't recognized, until her moment of truth, how much freedom she had was that she had never received formal leadership training. She is not alone. That's often the case for people who are promoted because they are great engineers or physicians, for example. But the qualities that made them exceptional individual contributors didn't prepare them for the challenges they later faced leading teams or projects.

Along with the freedom that comes with being the boss is the obligation to know what you don't know and secure the resources you need to excel in your role. Seek out the professional development opportunities that will give you the tools you need to lead effectively. Consider working with an executive coach if you don't know where to start or if you feel that you would benefit from individual attention.

You may not have much latitude to define the kinds of tasks you do at work. But no matter what your role, it's likely that you have great freedom to define how you accomplish your assigned responsibilities. It's up to you to find those opportunities and make the most of them.

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