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Being able to provide autonomy to a team member can be a key motivational factor.

We see autonomy included in various motivation theories such as the Job Characteristics model and Dan Pink’s more recent motivation theory in the book, “Drive”.

Autonomy in the workplace refers to the ability for somebody to make decisions about the work that they do, or the actions they take. In other words, they have some freedom to decide how they work.

The opposite of providing autonomy is instead to control and direct every aspect of a team’s work. This means team members aren’t able to make choices – they are simply required to follow orders.

It makes sense that giving people some freedom often results in greater enthusiasm, motivation and a feeling of control within the team. This is supported by motivation theory, and I see it in real life in the workplace, too.

Many Leaders Struggle to Provide Autonomy to Their Team Members

Providing autonomy can feel like a challenge for leaders.

I work with many leaders who want to provide autonomy for their people, but struggle to feel comfortable enough to do it.

There are many potential reasons for this, such as (but not limited to) low skill levels in the team, or a lack of trust in team members due to perceived poor attitudes.

Stressed leader

To read more about some of these reasons, you can check out my earlier post here: Why Leaders Struggle to Provide Autonomy at Work.

The focus of this post is not to discuss these reasons. Instead, I aim to outline some simple ways that you might try to provide autonomy for the people in your team.

Why Does Providing Autonomy Matter?

Several motivation models point to the importance of autonomy for motivation. And of course, it’s nice to have more motivated team members.

But what are some of the other potential benefits? In my experience, greater autonomy can improve:

  • Commitment: Autonomy provides team members with the ability to contribute to the team through being able to make choices about their work. This can increase commitment to the team, because team members know their choices matter.
  • Ownership: Team members are more likely to take ownership when they can see that they have a bigger part to play. Instead of being order-takers, they start to become leaders within the team.
  • Trust: Providing autonomy can be a strong show of trust in your team members. It demonstrates a willingness to share responsibility within the team, rather than to need to be “the boss” all the time.

Those are some pretty good reasons, in my opinion. So let’s look some ways we might make it happen.

Learn More:  5 Empowering Leadership Actions to Try In Your Team.

Ways to Provide Autonomy For Your Team Members

Many leaders don’t feel comfortable giving complete freedom to their team members. This is natural, as not all team members have the skills, experience or attitude that would make this approach successful.

Providing autonomy comes with a degree of risk. Someone could make a mistake, or make the wrong decision. Of course, this risk comes with a big reward – the potential for team members to feel more motivated and committed to the team.

Here are some different ideas to try, to provide autonomy for your team members.

1. Provide Autonomy By Letting People Schedule Their Own Work

Some teams work in an environment where things have to be done in a certain way. This might be due to the need to comply with regulations, safety standards or best practice methods.

In this situation, sometimes we are tempted to control all the steps, to make sure nothing goes wrong.

Instead, is it possible for your team members to decide in which order they will complete their tasks?

Manage Your Emotions - Alternative Explanations

This way, you ensure that key work is completed, but you also allow a small degree of freedom for team members to decide how they do their work.

“But what if the order they choose is inefficient?”, you may ask.

Well, it might turn out that they learn something about the most efficient way to complete the work. Then, they can adapt their approach for next time.

This is that risk-reward payoff. You might sacrifice some efficiency in the short term, and build motivation and insight in the longer term.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #71: A Simple Model for Team Motivation.

2. Let Your Team Members Decide What’s Most Important

Your team members are probably like everyone else. They have lots of work they could do, but not enough time to do everything.

Priority stamp - overwhelmed at workInstead of telling your people what to focus on, is it possible you could let them set their own priorities instead?

This can be a good way to improve ownership. After all, if you tell them what to focus on and something goes wrong (or right!), they can look to you for the source of the issue.

But when they set their own priorities, they need to shoulder some of the blame or gain the credit for what has occurred.

You might ask “but what if they focus on things that aren’t the most important?”. This is where you come in, to guide and coach them about what could be a better approach for next time.

Instead of telling them the answer, you might let them work it out for themselves.

Learn More:  How to Set Clear Priorities For Your Team.

3. Provide Autonomy By Letting Your People Decide How to Do the Work

It’s often the case that we know what work needs to be done.

But how it’s done? Well, there can be many ways to accomplish a task.

Is it possible to let your team members decide how to tackle the work?

Sometimes we might know the tried and true method for solving a problem, but other times there may be grey areas where the solution or approach is not so certain.

In these cases, it can be beneficial to let your people come up with ideas about what the best approach might be.

Once again, they get to take ownership of the solution. And you never know what innovative ideas may come out of letting your people determine the solution.

Not comfortable with this approach? How about letting them propose the solution and discussing it with you first? This gives you a degree of oversight, without being too directive.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #78: Want to Feel More In Control of Your Team? Try Letting Go.

4. Let Your People Decide When and Where to Work

The world is increasingly using remote working to accomplish tasks, where previously everyone used to be in the same place. In addition, people have begun to crave more freedom about when they come and go from the workplace.

This can threaten some leaders who like the “old” ways of working, but it would be foolish to ignore this trend.

leading remote staff

Is it possible to let your people decide where they would be most productive in delivering their work? Could they work from home, or a cafe, or a private office?

Are they able to start earlier, or work later in order to accommodate other events in their life?

While this doesn’t suit all workplaces or professions, allowing a degree of flexibility can be a great show of trust in your team members, rather than forcing them to adhere to a strict set of rules about where or when the work is completed.

When Providing Autonomy, Consider the Continuum

Sometimes it’s easy to get stuck in binary thinking when it comes to providing autonomy.

That is, we either let people have complete freedom, or we provide strict direction.

The reality is that autonomy is really a continuum, ranging from “Do whatever you want!” to “Do it exactly how I say”.

This is great news for leaders, because it means we can adjust our approach depending on the skills, attitudes and experience of our team members.

Do you have a real go-getter in the team who is skilled and motivated? Let them off the leash and provide more autonomy.

Or are you leading a person who is unskilled and lacking confidence? Maybe try a more directive approach, with a sprinkling of autonomy thrown in for good measure.

The point is, you don’t need to let go completely, or squeeze tighter. There is always the middle ground to try.

Hopefully this post provides you with some motivation to experiment with autonomy in your team. After all, you’ll never really know how well providing autonomy could motivate your team, unless you try.

What other ways can you provide autonomy to help motivate your team? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!

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