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3 Ways to Spread an 'Intrapreneurial' Spirit Throughout Your Company You can promote autonomy and creative thinking among your team members while still keeping a grip on the wheel.

By Mike Kalis Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


It's no bombshell revelation that employees love autonomy. After all, we live in an age of entrepreneurship, and it's highly likely in such an environment that many of your team members are working on their own ideas. They see themselves as makers and leaders in their own right, not just cogs in a machine.

Related: 5 Ways to Integrate Employee Autonomy Into Your Culture

That's a good instinct: Proof? A 2017 study by the University of Birmingham reported the value in autonomy: Researchers there found that those employees in the survey who were more trusted and empowered at work reported higher levels of job satisfaction.

This trust-satisfaction link is a phenomenon I've seen in my own company: When people have good ideas, we like to give them opportunities to carry out those ideas; and some team members have actually gone on to craft entire roles for themselves. In doing so, they've made drastic improvements to the company.

The reverse is also true, however, when employees feel too restricted: Keep team members on a short leash, and you could be stifling creativity and lowering employee satisfaction.

Autonomy and entrepreneurial thinking give people a sense of control, accountability and ownership of their work, which can create what we call an "intrapreneur." This is someone who thinks and acts like a business owner within an organization. Intrapreneurship leads to a sense of achievement when things go well, a drive to fix things when they go wrong and a company that is unstoppable.

Eliminating fear and allowing ideas to flourish

Admitting autonomy and encouraging intrapreneurial ventures can be a scary prospect. There's an inevitable ego factor that many business leaders must first overcome.

I remember hiring my first couple of salespeople, and how they turned out to be better at sales than me. It was a tough pill to swallow. But, as soon as I shelved my ego and embraced a sense of humility, I was able to empower these salespeople to take the lead.

Then, once I let them run and be great at their jobs, they became some of our biggest advocates, and we started driving the company forward, in tandem.

Giving autonomy generously rather than begrudgingly handing it over can be a tough learning curve for employers. But, by exploring your employees' ideas and acknowledging their inner intrapreneur, you can catalyze new ideas for your company while making your team happier overall.

How to foster intrapreneurial thinking in your company

Here are three ways you can promote autonomy and intrapreneurial thinking in your own team while still keeping a grip on the wheel:

1. Listen and ask questions. You don't have to hand over creative freedom all at once. Team members will adapt better to their new autonomous roles if they've had a chance to prepare and test the waters.

Related: Listening is an Art, and Mastering it Will Make You a Great Leader

During a brainstorming session, take the time to really listen to people's ideas. When someone speaks up, respond by asking how he or she would make this idea a reality. This is your hypothesis stage -- it costs nothing, risks little and allows your team members to feel comfortable taking control.

Sometimes, you'll hear an idea and want to throw that employee out of the meeting for wasting everybody's time. But stick with it -- ask questions that help the employee get better at generating ideas.

After all, the idea may not be viable, but your response is vital. Did you respond positively? Can you expand on the idea? Did you make the person feel special for sharing, or cut him or her down? Autonomy doesn't mean you can't help one another out. In fact, a study by university researchers found that employees came up with 37 percent more ideas when they started off brainstorming as a group.

Good things come from empowered employees, so don't shut them down. Instead, give them the floor, and help them turn their ideas into successful initiatives.

2. Embrace the "expandable pie." Business leaders love their pie, but they can get a little too attached to all of the slices it contains. Sometimes, they can focus too much on predefined departments and roles.

The "expandable-pie" concept is a good way of opening up those constraints. Say that there are seven slices for seven people in your company but then an eighth person comes along with a great idea. That doesn't mean you have to fire someone else to maintain the pie. The pie can grow, along with the creativity and ambition of the team.

According to a Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report, 32 percent of American adults surveyed said they had direct relationships with entrepreneurs, indicating that encountering an entrepreneurial spirit is pretty much inevitable, and impossible to ignore. Instead of restricting intrapreneurial thinking, then, take the plunge and encourage it.

But, take caution: Maintaining an unrealistic pie may drive fears about demotions or firings throughout your company. In that case, intrapreneurial thinking will be easily silenced, and all members of the business will suffer.

3. Add in some fun. People will feel more capable of contributing their ideas if they can do so in a fun, lighthearted way. With this in mind, companies are getting creative at showing employees that they care. For example, Gap corporate employees receive free access to local museums, a move that might inspire and incentivize their own creativity at work.

Autonomy and intrapreneurial thinking can be spun with fun, too. My company awarded cash prizes through what we called the "Why?" awards. Team members were encouraged to submit a one-page entry that included a "why" question followed by what they were willing to do to answer it or fix the problem.

Around 200 entries were submitted and got everyone's brains working creatively while boosting a welcoming, intrapreneurship-driven environment.

Another move: We hand out "Get Out of Jail Free" cards. Each cardholder has free license to bring an idea to the table -- no matter how wacky or expensive. Gamifying otherwise dull pitch meetings can help foster team members' involvement and willingness to pursue entrepreneurial ideasthey've been holding onto for a while.

Related: 4 Ways Employee Incentives Can Drive Engagement and Retention

Creativity is the true equity value of corporate America. When you keep employees tied to an hourly wage and tell them to keep doing the same tasks over and over, you rob your company of its competitive advantage.

Instead, consider: You have all these minds in one place, and if you empower intrapreneurial thinking and autonomy, you'll get so much more than an hourly rate out of people: You'll get a team whose members who care as much about your company as you do themselves.

Mike Kalis

CEO of Marketplace Homes

Mike Kalis is the CEO of Marketplace Homes and one of Crain’s Detroit Business’s “Top 20 in Their 20s.” 

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