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Why Autonomy is Essential for Building a Great Team

In the mortgage industry, we as leaders face a difficult dilemma. We want our employees to feel the freedom to be creative. We want to enable them to take risks and have failures in order grow. However, due to the regulatory nature of our industry, there are some risk that cannot be taken; the breaking of some rules can be catastrophic.

Due to the fear of falling out of compliance, we are often tempted to make it all about the rules. We develop systems that include safeguards for staying within compliance, and we expect our people to work within those systems. Thinking outside of the box isn’t often considered an asset in the mortgage industry but, rather, a liability. In our line of work, it can be very easy to buy into the idea that a good employee is an employee who follows the rules.

There are a few problems with this model. First, playing it safe and limiting ourselves to the same systems cannot lead to growth. If you can’t think outside the box, then the box will never get any bigger than it is. Growth comes from expanding the possibilities and developing the systems beyond their current capabilities. Only if employees feel they have the autonomy to take some healthy risks will they express any interest in growth.

More importantly, though, autonomy attracts the right kind of people to our organizations. If we attract only people who are interested in following the rules, we are attracting people with no ambition or passion for their work. The people who are passionate about what they do are also the people who take risks and push possibilities. These are the kind of people we want on our team. Do we need to be careful? Of course we do. But we can never let fear prevent us from moving in a positive direction. How do you juggle to tension between staying compliant and enabling your people to take healthy risks?

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Your People Will Only Grow If You Expect Them To

One of my favorite stories is the classic research study that was conducted in schools in order to determine the effect that teachers have on their students. At the beginning of the year, teachers were told which of their students were the brightest and which were not. At the end of the year, they measured the students’ scores and found that the “brightest” students had gotten even better after their teachers had been informed of their intelligence.

The catch in the story is that the “bright” students weren’t actually any more intelligent, on average, than the other students. The students had actually been assigned intelligence levels at random, and the only difference between them was what their teachers had been led to believe. So, how did the students improve if they weren’t actually any more intelligent than the ones who did not? Because their teachers expected them to.

There is a powerful lesson in leadership to be found in this story: our people will grow to the extent that we expect them to grow. If we don’t think very highly of our people, they will shrink into complacently and only do the bare minimum. On the other hand, if we have great expectations of our people and go out of our way to communicate those expectations to them, they will inevitably become invaluable assets to the team.

As is the case with many things, it all starts with leadership. How high are your expectations for your people? Do you communicate those expectations on a regular basis?

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How Seeking Feedback Strengthens Leadership Ability

Nobody likes being criticized. Nobody likes being told they’re wrong. Nobody likes being told that there are things about them that they need to change. As leaders in our organizations, it can be really easy to escape that discomfort. Most of the people who come into contact with us each day are probably more interested in flattering us than they are in critiquing us. So, why wouldn’t we take advantage of our position and avoid the discomfort of feedback?

Well, if we’ve risen to positions of leadership in our organizations, we probably already know the answer to this question: without feedback, we can’t improve. We can’t grow. We can’t become better leaders. The fact that so many people are trying to avoid criticism of us isn’t a benefit; it’s actually a disadvantage. If we don’t have people who are willing to tell us where we’re going wrong, then how are we supposed to turn things around and continue heading in the right direction?

Here’s my advice: always be soliciting feedback from your people. At the end of every conversation, ask your people if they agree with you and why they feel the way they do. Conduct anonymous surveys periodically on the policies you are implementing. Have an open door policy and let your people come to you when they have suggestions. Feedback may feel uncomfortable in the short term, but it strengthens us in the long term. Being a great leader often means we’ve made a lot of mistakes…and then fixed them. Find people who are willing to point out your mistakes to you–that’s how you become a stronger leader.