A Simplified Guide To Encouraging Autonomy In The Workplace

Dan Pink, author of the best-selling book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” identified the three ingredients for boosting workplace productivity and motivation:

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

We have made significant progress in the last two. Today’s organizations provide ample training opportunities to help their people attain mastery, and they also help workers establish personal development goals and roll out CSR initiatives to deepen their purpose at work.

However, letting employees have their “say” at work is something that many business leaders still grapple with.

You may have taken your business to its current (respectable) level by constantly watching over the shoulders of your employees. But if you want to progress beyond respectable, research says letting employees take charge is key.

Autonomy Defined And The Science Behind It

In a nutshell, autonomy in the workplace refers to giving employees ‘increased decision-making authority in respect to the execution of their primary work.’

Autonomy is the exact opposite of micromanagement.

Micromanagement is a management style wherein the manager controls the work of employees. Micromanagers monitor their subordinates at every opportunity and demand that work is carried out their way.

Short-term micromanagement can prove useful in certain situations, like when onboarding a new hire or coaching an underperforming employee. But it causes more harm than good as a long-term management approach.

For starters, micromanagement cripples the workplace by:

  • Building a “need to be told” culture
  • Lowering morale
  • Increasing turnover
  • And decreasing productivity

But even worse:

Micromanagement is also life-threatening!

A 5-year study of British civil servants found that having no job control puts one at greater risk for coronary heart disease (CHD) than other risk factors such as smoking.

Let’s now contrast the impacts of micromanagement against autonomy:

  • Increased job satisfaction and talent retention: A survey involving 1,380 staff members from community health centers in Taiwan and a study of Australian general practitioners saw autonomy at work correlate with higher satisfaction and lower turnover among employees.
  • Helps employees recover: If you keep customer service in house, know that autonomy soothes the negative emotions felt by stressed customer service representatives.
  • Increased levels of well being: Researchers from the University of Birmingham studying two years of data involving 20,000 employees found that autonomy correlated with increased reported levels of wellbeing. Schedule control, in particular, is essential to employees “enjoying” work.

Science has spoken. Building a more autonomous workplace not only makes a lot of business sense. But it’s also the humane thing to do.

But reshaping your company’s culture so employees are productive and less reliant on orders is quite the leap. So let’s now take a closer look at a few tried-and-tested strategies to help get you there.

Expect And Prepare For Mistakes

Are you the type of leader who gets overly critical when mistakes happen?

If you answered “yes,” then creating a more autonomous workplace can prove tricky. Mistakes are par for the course of new initiatives and major changes at the office. And reacting too harshly when things don’t go as planned will kill employee engagement.

Think about it:

Would you want to experiment or try a new approach if a slip meant taking a verbal beating from your boss?

Probably not!

On the other hand, you have a business to run and profits to protect, and costly errors can get in the way of that. So what’s a owner or leader, like you, to do?

The solution:

Start small.

Doing so is a win-win for everyone. Workers get some degree of freedom at the office, while you minimize the impact of any potential errors. As your team learns from their errors and adjust, you can then start increasing their autonomy slowly.

Set The Strategy But Let Employees Decide On The Execution

You can’t just tell, for example, the marketing team to “increase the leads generated per month” and let them go their way. That’s not workplace autonomy. That’s called leaving your people in the dark, and doing so could very well lead to frustration.

To make sure you strike a balance between autonomy and structure, you should lay down the project’s:

  • Key performance indicators (KPIs)
  • Benchmarks to which their results are compared to
  • Milestones and hard deadlines
  • And the overall strategy

From here, you will want to hand over the reins to the employee or team. Let them decide which tactics to use to hit their targets.

Give Your Team The Tools And Resources They Need To Succeed

Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt is one hell of secret agent. He’s been completing impossible missions for more than 20 years (and still counting) while understaffed, under-equipped, and outgunned by enemies of the state. His work makes for a thrilling story, doesn’t it?

In the office, however, forcing employees to play the role of Ethan Hunt can have disastrous consequences.

When you grant employees more freedom at work, you’re essentially saying: “I trust that you have the skills and experience needed to complete this task without constant supervision.”

But trust must go both ways for it to work.

Employees also count on you to provide the resources and tools they need to succeed. If you can’t meet such expectations, workers will think that all this effort to create an autonomous workplace is just a ploy to increase their workload and lessen yours.

Keep The Lines Of Communication Open

Employees hate being told how they should work. But they do appreciate guidance and clarifications when they need it. So when building an autonomous culture at work, you want to create guidelines that give employees a “say” while keeping the lines of communication open.

Note, though:

Different organizations use different techniques to maintain that intricate balance between autonomy and continuous contact with the higher-ups.

Some companies may hold roundtable sessions once a week so staff members can consult their supervisors on a project. Others turn to technology solutions like unified communications to ensure their workers can reach out to managers (and vice-versa) in a moment’s notice.

And if you want to take things to a whole new level, you can follow the footsteps of Zappos. Their CEO Tony Hsieh sits in a same-sized cubicle as everyone else and calls members of the executive team “monkeys.” The idea behind all that is to show that the senior management team is accessible and approachable, and employees to reach out for help whenever needed.

How you choose to put this best practice to use will depend on your company’s culture, employee preference, and other factors.

But the message is the same:

If you want your workforce to be less reliant on supervision and stay productive, constant communication is a must.

Author Bio

Nathan Sharpe is the entrepreneur behind Biznas, a blog where he serves practical business advice and tips to readers. Learning and helping others learn is his passion.


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