Q&A: Balancing Autonomy and Oversight with Swathy Sanjeevi

Q: How did your journey begin, and what have you learned during your journey that has shaped who you are today?

Getting into HR was not by chance; it was a choice. It all started when I oversaw the student placement department during my engineering days, which was distinctive in that there were only four of us running it. I worked directly with the institution's principal during a time of low placements. I spoke to around 2,500 HR professionals, both in person and virtually, and successfully placed over 300 students. These conversations made me realize that I wanted to inspire and set an example.

My journey continued with various internships and my first job at Tricog as an HR generalist. Working with leaders and the belief that "who you work with defines you" played a significant role in my growth. Another key factor was my strong work ethic. I believe hard work is essential for success, and while luck plays a role, it's hard work that consistently delivers results.

Through dedication and perseverance, I progressed from an associate to an assistant manager and eventually became a partner, marking my journey of taking on more responsibilities and growing in my career.

Q: Why is it important to balance high-agency and low-agency individuals in a team, and how does autonomy fit into this equation?

Balancing high-agency (Type A) and low-agency (Type B) individuals within a team is crucial for fostering a dynamic and productive work environment. High-agency individuals are typically proactive, self-driven, and take initiative, while low-agency individuals may prefer more guidance and structure in their work. When these two types of individuals coexist in a team, it creates a balance that can lead to innovative ideas, efficient problem-solving, and a supportive atmosphere.

Autonomy plays a pivotal role in this equation. It's about granting individuals the freedom and independence to make decisions and take ownership of their work. High-agency individuals thrive in autonomous environments, allowing them to channel their drive and initiative effectively. On the other hand, providing guidance and support to low-agency individuals within the framework of autonomy ensures they feel secure and valued, promoting their confidence and skill development.

By integrating autonomy, we acknowledge the unique strengths of both types of team members. High-agency individuals can explore their creativity and innovation, while low-agency individuals can build their skills and confidence in a supportive environment. Additionally, autonomy fosters a sense of trust and responsibility among team members, promoting a positive team culture.

For instance, research-oriented teams might require more Type A individuals for innovative thinking, but a mix of both is essential. You can bring in junior members to handle some of the more routine tasks, allowing them to learn from the Type A team members. Initial experiences for newcomers might involve more manual or time-intensive work as part of their learning process. Ultimately, the balance depends on your team's specific requirements.

Q: How should an organization allocate Type A and Type B individuals across roles efficiently, considering the rarity of Type A individuals? Can you share an example from a startup that demonstrates this?

Type A individuals are not as common because our education often emphasizes conformity and rote learning. The system trains us to follow instructions and stick to theoretical concepts, which is why many people grow up as conformers.

Regarding the scarcity of Type A individuals, it's not just about their numbers but also other factors that come into play when hiring them. They can be more expensive to hire, and whether your organization can afford them is a consideration, particularly in the context of a startup.

Determining the ideal balance of Type A and Type B individuals in a startup can be challenging for an outsider. It depends on the startup's specific needs and goals, making it difficult to prescribe a fixed ratio of these personality types. However, there are ways through which you can determine the balance. Identify the key skills and personality traits required for the role that you are hiring, balance the team by having both Type A and Type B individuals foster diversity, and encourage collaboration between these two types to allow learning. In general, as per my experience, Type A are visionary leaders or potential leaders who bring in innovative thinking, while Type B are efficient in implementing the ideas.

Q: What are autonomy and oversight in HR, and how do they affect responsibility in the workplace? How does the manager's type influence the balance of autonomy and oversight?

Autonomy and Oversight in HR:

Autonomy: In HR, autonomy is about granting employees the freedom to decide how they achieve their goals within a defined framework. For example, when filling a position, a comprehensive explanation is provided, along with a reasonable timeline. This framework includes guidelines, rules, information, and essential resources. Autonomy allows the team to decide how they execute the work while adhering to the defined "what."

Oversight: Oversight comes into play when the work isn't progressing as expected. Regular check-ins and a structured approach like "1-minute goals" are utilized. Team members commit to particular tasks with deadlines, and there is a Monday check-in and a Friday check-out. Completing tasks as planned leads to positive reinforcement, while a "1-minute redirect" is used if tasks are not on track.

Fostering Autonomy: Building autonomy is about trusting and empowering team members to take responsibility and ownership of their work. Trusting them to get the job done is key to driving ownership in the workplace. Oversight steps in when needed, but the emphasis is on fostering a sense of responsibility and ownership within the team.

Balancing Type A and Type B: Type A managers generally have a proactive and ambitious nature, which might result in higher expectations of the individuals that they work with. Managers of this nature will encourage ideas from the rest of the team members. However, there will be some initial oversight, as they are very conscious of the quality of work that goes out. But once they gain that trust, autonomy will automatically come into place. On the other hand, Type B managers are very structured and follow processes diligently. Hence, we will expect the team members to follow the same. Type A employees might look for less oversight and more autonomy to explore their innovative ideas. This may be a problem for them to work with Type B managers.

This structured approach clarifies the concepts of autonomy and oversight in HR and their application in the workplace.

Q: How can a team escape constant micro-management, allowing for innovation when the manager's focus is largely on oversight, restricting the team's experimentation, even on a small scale?

To address this challenge, it's essential to create a culture where employees feel their work is heard, recognized, and valued. In a modern workforce, especially with millennials and Gen Z, it's no longer an employer-driven market; employees choose organizations. If managers consistently stifle innovation and impose bureaucratic processes, employees become frustrated and may leave the organization.

In this context, the pattern of managerial behavior should be recognized, and some managers may require guidance or mentoring to shift from an oversight-oriented approach to a more open and innovative one. Leadership needs to foster an open culture that encourages new ideas and continuous innovation. Facebook's value of "You have to fail Facebook, or else somebody else will fail" underscores the importance of ongoing innovation in today's competitive landscape. So, addressing this issue, even at a micro-level, is crucial, and it can be done through guidance and fostering an open culture.

If you're in a leadership position within the team, model the behavior you want to see. Demonstrate trust in your team members, communicate clearly, show trust, and allow them to take the lead on projects.

Q: How can a manager balance autonomy and oversight in a diverse team without micro-managing and encouraging self-reliance in younger members?

Managing a diverse team with a mix of ages, such as the 30s and 22–23-year-olds, can be a challenge. People born in the 90s, for instance, tend to be responsible and have a strong sense of ownership, requiring less micromanagement. On the other hand, younger team members may crave more autonomy and prefer doing things their way. As a manager, finding the right balance between these groups can be tricky, especially when you're new to management. It takes time and experience to understand the dynamics and figure out how to best support each team member while encouraging their individual strengths and autonomy.

Cultivate a culture of trust and communicate clearly and proactively. Set clear objectives and expectations, and allow the team to make decisions within those boundaries. Once you do the above, do regular check-ins and praise or redirect the team member as required. Ultimately, this will foster independence within the framework of guidance and trust.

Q: How can a manager or HR maintain team morale and autonomy when good ideas get rejected due to execution issues or valid reasons like metrics and risks?

To maintain team morale and autonomy when good ideas face rejection, it's essential to keep things explicit and communicate clearly that not all ideas will be accepted, which is the reality in any organization. Data-driven decision-making plays a pivotal role. Explain why certain ideas were rejected, and if possible, provide data to support the decision. This helps employees understand the rationale and learn from the process. Additionally, fostering a culture that encourages freedom of expression and experimentation is crucial. Allow employees to test and iterate on their ideas, always backed by data, creating a balance between quantitative and subjective evaluation. This approach can help boost team morale and maintain autonomy while managing rejected ideas effectively.

Q: How can you teach leadership skills to managers for personal and professional growth?

To make managers evolve into leaders, it's crucial to emphasize continuous training and mentoring. A consistent training program, whether internal or external, is essential to hone their leadership skills. Additionally, implementing a mentor-mentee program helps individuals learn and grow through constant guidance and support. I do not believe in a one-day transformation. It's a time-consuming process. While organizations can provide resources, it's up to individuals to put in the effort to become better leaders. A combination of both internal and external learning opportunities can significantly contribute to this transformation.

Q: How can we trust someone's intuition when assessing individuals in professional settings?

To assess someone's suitability for leadership roles, especially in a company that prefers internal development, it's not solely based on one person's intuition or first impressions. Instead, it involves the judgment of multiple stakeholders and a longer period of observation.

Intuition should complement, not replace, rational thinking and evidence-based decision-making. Encourage individuals to balance intuitive judgments with logical analysis and data-driven insights. Trusting someone's intuition in professional settings is about recognizing its value while being mindful of its limitations. When used judiciously and in conjunction with other decision-making tools, intuition can provide valuable insights into assessing individuals and situations.

Q: How can you train someone from outside an organization to become a leader, and what are the essential skill sets and personality traits to develop for this role?

Hiring someone from outside for a leadership role is always challenging. You need to first assess your internal team and see if anyone can fit in that role. You can use the build vs. buy model to assess the same. If you are in a position to buy skills, then your only option is to hire.

To train an external individual for leadership:

1. Focus on Cultural Alignment: Ensure they fit the organization's culture and be open to cultural adaptation.

2. Develop leadership skills: Provide guidance on communication, behavior, and handling various situations.

3. Continuous Feedback: Provide regular feedback through performance reviews. Constructive criticism and positive reinforcement help them understand their progress and areas for improvement.

Q: How significant will autonomous thinking and the shift in managerial habits be in shaping the future workplace culture for employees in organizations?

Data, predictive analytics, and technology will have a significant impact on the shift towards autonomous thinking and changes in managerial habits in the future. Companies will need to adapt to these changes, shifting from employer-driven to employee-driven cultures. Examples like Netflix, with its culture of freedom and responsibility, demonstrate that autonomy is becoming a crucial aspect of the workplace. Companies are reevaluating traditional policies and allowing more flexibility, which will likely continue to evolve in the coming years. Overall, organizations will move towards a more autonomous and less oversight-oriented work environment.

Do you work in HR?

Email abhash.kumar@springworks.in and let’s talk :)

Note: All views expressed in this interview are personal and not linked to any organization.