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Foster Autonomy - Main

Many leaders know that being able to foster autonomy in a team is a big deal.

When you can provide your people with more autonomy, you’ll hopefully see greater motivation and proactivity and a more self-sufficient team. You’ll have more time to do the job of leading, rather than needing to closely support people so often.

Unfortunately, fostering autonomy is often no easy feat.

Autonomy is a major motivating factor, but for it to work, your team members need to feel comfortable. And you need to feel comfortable letting go and providing that freedom, too.

In this post, I’ll take a look at some factors that might be tripping you up in your efforts to foster autonomy.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #215: Why Autonomy Matters For Your People and How to Provide It.

People Are Simple and Complex at the Same Time!

For many years, I was often frustrated by what people were doing in the workplace. I’d try to get the best out of them, but sometimes people would resist these efforts.

It just didn’t seem logical to me.

Of course, that’s because humans aren’t really logical. We’re also emotional creatures.

I then started to understand more about motivation theory and organisational behaviour, which gave me a different perspective about how people operate.

Over time, I came to realise a few things.

Three Points to Keep In Mind When You’re Leading

Firstly, you never know exactly what’s going on for somebody beneath the surface. Just by observing someone, you’re only seeing a small part of the story.

Second, people are a unique mix of all sorts of needs, emotions, fears, insecurities, goals, aspirations, genetics, past experiences and cultural factors that shape their behaviour.

Note: For more on this topic, check out my post on the iceberg model which goes into a bit more detail.

Iceberg to build empathy - overview

The third thing I learned was that you’ll almost never know the correct answer straight away. For me it became about experimentation and trial and error.

I’d come up with a hypothesis about what I thought was going on. Then I’d try to tweak something either in my behaviour or the work environment, to see how the team member responded to it.

Sometimes it made no difference (or the situation got worse). And other times, it was like flicking a switch. People started to become more motivated and enthusiastic almost overnight.

So, you’ll need patience and perseverance to try new things.

But also realise that not everybody can be transformed to be perfect for every role or situation. There are times when it’s just not a good fit.

I urge you to keep these points in mind for the rest of this post while we look at the possible reasons why your efforts to foster autonomy aren’t quite working (yet).

Why Your Attempts to Foster Autonomy Might Not Be Working

If people aren’t being as proactive or independent as you’d like them to be, you’re probably seeing a few things.

You might find that people are:

  • Checking in with you too often, when you don’t feel they should need to
  • Giving you all the details of what they’re doing, even though you don’t feel you need them; or
  • Becoming frustrated or feeling unsupported because of your perceived “hands off” approach.

There are lots of potential reasons why these sorts of behaviours might be happening, so let’s take a look at them now.

Then, we’ll see if there are some things you might be able to do about them.

1. You Can’t Foster Autonomy, Because You Haven’t Told Them the Plan

As leaders, we often develop strategies about what might improve the functioning of our teams.

For an unmotivated team member, we think of actions we can take to help them become more engaged. Or, for a team member lacking confidence, we might try to create an environment where they can feel more self-assured.

Confused team memberSometimes we keep the plans to ourselves. We make some adjustments but we don’t tell our people what we’re trying to do – we just wait to see how they respond.

However, this approach doesn’t work all the time. Team members may be accustomed to your normal way of operating. So when they see you’re doing things differently, it can become confusing when they don’t know what the plan is.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to improve autonomy and proactivity in your team.

You stop being prescriptive with your instructions, giving a general direction instead. If your team is used to detailed instruction, they may continue to check in with you and ask for more detail, because they think you’ve simply forgotten. Or worse, they might think you’ve stopped caring!

Instead, it may be helpful to have a conversation with your people to let them know what you’re hoping to achieve, why it’s important and what you’re going to be doing differently. Then they can understand the reasoning behind any potential change in behaviour they notice.

It may feel uncomfortable telling your people that you’d like them to be more proactive, because you feel as if you’re being critical.

However, you’re really trying to help them become more self-sufficient and confident.

Learn More:  Proactive vs Reactive Team Members: Make the Switch.

2. Your Words Don’t Match Your Behaviour

It’s very important to “walk the talk” as leaders.

That is, we need to make sure our behaviour aligns with our actions. If it doesn’t, you may find that you’ll be perceived as lacking integrity, which can be a major problem when it comes to building trust.

When it comes to trying to foster autonomy in a team, we need to watch our body language and behaviour closely. When we say we want to provide autonomy or have people become more proactive, our body language needs to say that too.

It doesn’t make sense to tell someone you trust them, and then:

  • Check in on them (too) frequently to see how things are progressing
  • Give them unsolicited advice on what they should be doing and when; or
  • Show nervous, twitchy body language when they’re telling you about an issue they’re having.

Your words are only part of the story. In fact, 55% of your meaning is communicated through body language, 38% through tone of voice, and only 7% is communicated through the words that you use.

Be sure to check your body language and tone, instead of only focusing on the words you are using.

Otherwise, people may believe that you don’t really trust them or believe what you are saying. And then, you might find that your people revert to their normal non-proactive behaviours, which you were trying to change in the first place.

3. There Is a Payoff or a Lack of Consequences For the Current Behaviour

One reason that you may not be seeing the proactive behaviour you are seeking may be because of a lack of compelling consequences, or some sort of payoff for keeping the same behaviour.

Workplace distractions - consequencesA hallmark of proactive behaviour is that people take responsibility for their own issues and work to fix them. This is probably one of the reasons why you’re looking to foster autonomy.

In some instances, I’ve seen leaders run in and fix mistakes for their team members, instead of letting them take accountability. For these team members, this can become a payoff for keeping the non-proactive behaviour. That is – “Even when I make a mistake, someone will fix it for me”.

Another common situation arises when there are really no consequences for passive, non-proactive behaviour. The leader becomes frustrated, but not much else happens.

So the question should be asked – why would the team member bother to make a change?

You might want to foster autonomy and create a more proactive team. But do your people care, and what’s in it for them?

4. You Can’t Foster Autonomy Because of the Hidden Factors

Sometimes we do seemingly all the right things and put the right factors in place, but we *still* don’t see the shift in behaviour we’re looking for.

People continue to resist our attempts to foster autonomy and instead maintain their old behaviours.

Consider the iceberg model that was mentioned earlier in the post.

Are there hidden factors beneath the iceberg that are getting in the way of the team member making a change? 

Some Examples of the Hidden Factors Which May Be Tripping You Up

Here are a few examples (of many possibilities!) that could be relevant:

  • Your team member has a high “power distance”. That is, they respect authority and are unlikely to push back or question people in leadership roles. This could be influenced by cultural factors, personality, or simply by previous experiences in the workplace. They may feel very uncomfortable making decisions for themselves – instead they wait for orders.
  • Your team member had a bad boss in the past. They got in big trouble when they made a decision once… so they’re not likely to want to do it again!
  • Team dynamics. Perhaps a team member is worried that if they are proactive, they may appear as if they’re trying to get ahead, at the expense of other team members. It might just feel socially safer for them to keep doing what the rest of the team does.

There are an almost unlimited amount of factors that could be at play here. Instead of trying to guess them all, it might just be easier to try to get to the root of the problem by having a more direct conversation.

Could a More Direct Conversation Be the Answer?

In terms of structure, it can be useful to tell them what you’ve observed, why you’re concerned about it and then get their perspective on the situation.

You might hear something you didn’t quite expect.

After you’ve spent some time uncovering the potential roadblock, you can now work together to see if you can come up with a potential way forward. 

It’s not your job to be a therapist or counsellor for your team. But sometimes, having an open conversation about what you’re seeing can help to solve the problem.

Trying to foster autonomy in a team can be a challenge.

Your people have their own “stuff” which may prevent them from stepping up and taking ownership. And you have all your own baggage which may be preventing you from letting go so easily, too.

Clear and open communication, persistence and a bit of trial and error can go a long way to unlocking the proactive potential of your team.

What challenges have you encountered when trying to give your team more autonomy or improve proactivity? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!

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