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Autonomy at Work

Providing autonomy at work is one of the most powerful ways to motivate people. When you provide your team members with autonomy, you give them the power to direct the way they do their work.

This means that your team members are more likely to feel like they are in control of what they do and how they do it and more likely to take accountability for their work.

When team members choose their direction, they will feel more invested in ensuring that they see a good outcome. On the other hand, if you tell a team exactly how to do their jobs, the risk of failure starts to fall on you because you are running the show.

Trust people and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

What’s So Hard About Giving People Autonomy?

Personally, I love giving people autonomy at work. Sometimes it’s hard if you don’t quite trust your team yet, particularly if the team has only recently formed.

Autonomy is a leader’s best friend, because frankly, I’ve got better things to do than check up on people every two minutes. Most leaders should have more important things to do than to monitor their team all day.

Still, I see many signs that providing autonomy at work is not normal for many leaders. Some of these signs include:

  • Paying overly close attention to exactly how team members spend their time
  • Becoming too involved in decisions that could be made by people in their teams
  • Attending meetings that are a waste of their time, because they fear that they will be left “out of the loop” otherwise.

Autonomy, Motivation and Experience Go Hand in Hand

When providing autonomy at work, leaders do need to be mindful of the experience and motivation levels of their team.

Letting go is much easier when you are dealing with a skilful, experienced team. The simple matrix below shows the approach you can take, depending on the motivation and skill level of your team members.

Autonomy at Work - Skill Experience Matrix 2

Tip: Autonomy is one part of motivation, but if you are struggling to motivate your team, don’t go it alone – Thoughtful Leader can help. Check out the Motivating Your Team Audiobook, for tools and techniques to get the best out of your team members. Don’t settle for a lazy, disinterested team… try the audiobook today.

Why You Struggle to Give Your Team Autonomy at Work (and What to Try Instead)

1. You Have Too Much Visibility of How Your Team Spends Their Time

Many leaders instinctively want complete visibility of their team.

Autonomy at work - eat the cakeThey want to see what meetings they are having, what websites they are looking at and who they are speaking to. They like to know how much time they spend chatting with their colleagues and they want to be across every decision that is made by their team.

This is a recipe for micromanagement.

Consider a person who has a piece of chocolate cake sitting on their desk every day. The cake stares at them, saying “eat me”.

For those people with great self control and discipline, 90% of the time this is not going to be an issue.

But what about that 10% of the time where you feel a bit stressed or vulnerable? You’re eating that cake, because it’s right there, easy to reach.

It’s the same with monitoring your team. In moments of weakness, if you have full access to their calendar, website logs or sit in very close proximity so you can see what they are doing every second, you’re going to take a bite of that tempting cake.

What to Try Instead: Remove the Temptation to Micromanage

Try reducing your ability to monitor your team so closely. Remove your access to their emails and calendars. Put your desk in a position where you can’t see everything they do, all the time.

In other words, reduce the temptation to monitor your team too closely.

If you are having trouble trusting your team and you are able to monitor them closely, that’s exactly what you will do. Then you will end up looking for patterns of behaviour that support your belief – that your team is not trustworthy.

This is called confirmation bias, and it can be harmful to your team if you let it take over. So start to let go of the reins.

For more about letting go of micromanagement, read: Are you a micromanaging boss? Here’s 3 ways to stop it.

2. Communication is Ineffective

Autonomy at Work - CommunicationOften when leaders start to remove autonomy from their team, it’s because they lack trust.

When people lack trust, it’s often because they aren’t hearing or seeing the things they think they should be. This causes them to look closer to see if there is a problem.

If communication lines are broken or ineffective, trust can be damaged because a leader may feel like people are withholding information.

You need to be in a situation where there are clear communication lines and expectations. Then you can be comfortable that you are getting the right information.

What to Try Instead: Set Clear Expectations for Communication

Communication is important and expectations need to be clear.

Set expectations with your team regarding how you will communicate, how often it should happen and what sort of things you need to know about.

Then, start building a culture of open communication. If your team thinks you will blame them for things going wrong (rather than supporting them), then people will start to hide things from you. This will only reinforce the lack of trust in the team.

Read more here about 5 easy ways to create open communication in your team.

3. Your Network Isn’t Strong Enough

One of the keys to being able to provide your team autonomy at work is to build a strong network within your organisation.

Being well connected means that you can more easily gather feedback about your team. If you have a close relationship with people who deal with your team, you’ll be in a good position to ask them questions about how they are performing.

This means that there is no need to monitor your team for every second of the day, because other people will informally do it for you. Then, you can start to piece together key information that will tell you whether you have a problem.

What to Try Instead: Focus On Building Your Network

Using a strong network, you can keep your finger on the pulse without resorting to micromanagement.

Engage with your colleagues more closely, meet them for coffee. Spend time building rapport and trust and eventually, they will start to communicate openly with you just when you need it.

Many people just see this as “chatting” and “wasting time”. But sometimes, this is exactly what’s needed to build your network and connections within your organisation.

How do you go about giving people autonomy at work? What challenges have you experienced? Let me know in the comments below!

Alternatively, if you would like to ask a question or need some help, you can send me a private message through my contact page.

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