Autonomy is one of the essential elements in building true employee engagement. Without it your workforce may become the “land of the working dead,” roaming endlessly in zombie-like fashion, waiting to be told what to do next. Not an enjoyable workplace for employees nor managers, by any stretch.
A favorite comment from a recent employee engagement survey we conducted with a large retail chain echoed this sentiment:
“I really enjoy it when my manager yells at me in her shrill voice, constantly telling me what to do and how to do it. It makes me want to work harder.”
The sarcasm is palpable and all too real.
Who wants to be told what to do at every turn, and who wants to be the one babysitting? Perhaps there are the few that fit into both of these categories, but that doesn’t cut it with good employees -- or good managers. That’s where balanced and effective autonomy comes into play.
What autonomy IS.
There are many definitions of autonomy, but the one I find useful is: "Autonomy is the power to shape your work environment in ways that allow you to perform at your best."
What autonomy is NOT.
So, let’s take a better look at what autonomy is not:
- Autonomy does NOT mean working in isolation. Being autonomous doesn’t give a person the right to work without supervision or collaborators.
- It’s NOT doing whatever you like whenever you like. In an organization with high levels of autonomy, the employer defines the boundaries of the employee’s control and decision-making power, creating the environment in which the employee can choose how autonomous he or she wishes to be.
- It’s NOT working without a net. In a well-run organization, autonomous employees receive strong, clear guidance from supervisors, established procedures, manuals and so on. It’s only dysfunctional organizations that employees are left to figure out their jobs with little or no input from management. That’s not autonomy; that’s lack of leadership.
In an autonomous organization, it’s what gets done that matters, with less concern for how it gets done. The bottom-line benefit to both employees and organizations is that workers who are free to make more choices are happier, more committed to their jobs, productive and less likely to leave.
With that in mind, here are six ways to encourage autonomy with your employees:
1. Mistakes will be made. Calm down!
Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kill initiative and, consequently, employee engagement. If organizations aim to grow, it’s essential they be full of people engaged with initiative. This doesn’t come when people work in fear.
2. Hire autonomous people.
Some people, although a minority, simply don’t chose to be autonomous. So hire the team who can naturally engage, provide them what they need to do their jobs well, then get out of the way. Doing so encourages employees to take risks, try new ideas and innovate.
Remember that 3M’s most lucrative product came out of its program allowing employees to spend 15 percent of their work time on personal projects. Freedom to experiment led 3M chemist, Art Fry, to invent a little thing called the Post-it note.
3. Build trust.
Without trust, autonomy is impossible. However, when trust is present, it sends employees the message that they are in command of their time, effort and reward.
It’s a two-way process. As an employee, I must trust my manager. At the same time, I must feel my manager trusts me. Yet many managers feel the need to constantly “run the machine.” An interesting correlation we find when we compare 360-degree feedback scores to employee engagement scores is that when an employee feels that she is trusted by her manager, she is far more likely to be engaged than when that trust isn’t present.
4. Create choice within boundaries.
The freedom of choice is a key element to autonomy, but too much choice can be detrimental. That’s why those who think autonomy means there are no boundaries are in error. In fact, firm boundaries -- and a system to hold people accountable for results -- are essential for autonomy to flourish. Within clear boundaries, people are empowered to determine how they will accomplish the tasks they are given.
5. Grant employees ownership.
Ownership occurs when what I am doing is mine, not just yours. Effective autonomy empowers employee to tap into the meaning that underlies their work.
Take, for example, a scenario I recently witnessed in the human resources department of a healthcare organization. An astute manager identified some true potential in a recently hired college graduate, and knew the grad’s unique technical skills would be useful in rolling out an organization-wide talent development process. By encouraging the new employee to apply his recently learned technology skills to the initiative, the project moved from a “company must-do” in the employee’s mind to “this is an opportunity for me to use what I learned to benefit thousands of employees.” In just three months, the system put in place by the young employee replaced an antiquated process that that had been in revision for nearly three years, at a cost savings of several million dollars. In the eyes of the recent grad, the initiative wasn’t a “company project.” It was “my project.”
6. Provide tools to reach goals.
Give your employees the tools and resources they need to reach your goals -- and theirs. Training, technology, new faces… whatever it takes. Again, this is about trust, saying, “I’m willing to invest in you and your ideas because I believe you’ll make it worthwhile.”
Now, get out of the way and let people do their thing. If you hire people who want to give 110 percent and put them in an 85 percent environment, you’ll do your organization greater harm than by hiring 85 percenters in the first place. Don’t grant autonomy if you as a manager aren’t prepared to follow through. Keep in mind, taking away autonomy once you’ve granted it is a surefire employee engagement killer.