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How to encourage autonomy in your workforce.

I wrote last week about intrinsic motivation and how it tends to be a better, longer-lasting driver for employee engagement than the old carrot-and-stick approach of extrinsic motivators.

One such intrinsic motivator is autonomy. It’s tied in with feeling valued and trusted and understanding how our work contributes to the bigger picture of the success of our employers.

Hands up anyone who enjoys being micromanaged…

Thought not! It’s not good for the soul, is it? Employees who are entrusted to make their own choices about how they go about their responsibilities are almost always happier, more committed and loyal, and more productive than those who suffer the indignity of being consistently micromanaged. Because it feeds intrinsic motivation, autonomy is important to our engagement levels with our work and our employers.

There are benefits to employers of an autonomous workforce too. They’re easier and less time-consuming to manage, and they almost always generate better results.

Of course, not every employee wants or feels comfortable with the same level of autonomy, and the degree of autonomy that we want and feel can vary over time, from day to day or project to project. But, looking at the culture of your business, is it trusting on the whole? Does it allow, facilitate, and encourage autonomy? Or does it tend to command and control?

If we know that autonomy can benefit our people’s wellbeing, engagement, and productivity, how can we go about encouraging it within our organisations?

Vision and Purpose matter

Without clear direction and an understanding of how their work fits into the bigger picture, we can’t expect our people to make fully informed decisions. They may head off in the wrong direction, or in different directions to each other. This will just waste time and create the need for management intervention and, sometimes, cause conflict.

Communicating your strategy, vision and purpose - to all of your staff, regardless of their position or level of autonomy – should be a fundamental part of your comms strategy.

(Separate bespoke comms strategies are also advisable for big projects, critical pieces of work or significant programmes of change.)

Trust is key

When delegating tasks, a good level of trust needs to be delegated with them. That may well bring with it a degree of risk, depending on the skill, knowledge and ability of the person being entrusted with the task.

Where that risk is significant, it’s best to start small and slowly increase the employee’s responsibilities and freedoms. Consult people about a project and encourage collaboration from the very beginning to nurture trust and confidence on both sides.

Be clear about what is in their scope of responsibility and what needs sign off from above, so that only those latter details (such as extra costs or external input, for example) have to be requested or escalated. That will demonstrate trust and show that you have faith in their judgments.

Give them the tools they need

Perhaps an obvious one for the list? Or not, if real-world examples and experience are to be believed. And don’t just think of the tangible tools and resources (such as hardware and software), as necessary as these are, but consider knowledge, training, and access to information, platforms, and additional talent.

Supporting the professional development of our people is fundamental for their wellbeing, engagement and commitment, and, of course, their desire for and comfort with autonomy. Bespoke those development plans to plug gaps in knowledge and skills, and everyone benefits.

Let them learn from mistakes

Being over-critical of mistakes will kill initiative and confidence. Eventually, this will destroy engagement. A sense of psychological safety in the workplace is essential if employees are going to be willing to share their ideas, suggestions and feedback.

Allowing our people to adapt their approach when they hit a brick wall or make a mistake will give them an increased sense of control and help them to grow, ultimately benefiting their performance.

This is especially important for our Gen Z colleagues who have a particularly healthy view of mistakes, seeing them as a way to learn and not something to fear or be ashamed of.

This is all about encouraging and maintaining a growth mindset within the organisation.

Communicate. A lot.

Ensure meetings to monitor and review progress against goals are regular and robust. As well as checking progress, these can identify when and where people need support or additional resource, giving all parties the chance to raise concerns and share successes.

Feedback, recognition and appreciation are all essential to build this culture of autonomy and a team that is happy, willing and able to take on additional responsibilities and accountabilities.

Other options for autonomy

Thinking more broadly, organisations can also offer autonomy in other, non-task-related fields of their employees’ work life. Flexible working policies have never been more popular and important. Allowing our people some control over when and where they work (within the confines of the needs of the business, of course) is an effective way of showing trust and offering autonomy.

Similarly, offering flexibility around annual leave (such as buy-and-sell-holidays or an unlimited leave scheme) and benefits (with a range on offer from which to pick and choose and buy or trade) give our people more choice, more control and a greater sense of responsibility and belonging. This practice can be particularly beneficial where roles and responsibilities are more prescriptive, and autonomy within tasks is harder to offer.

Autonomy in the workforce won't come quickly if it isn't already there. But it as journey worth taking, and will benefit everyone in the long run. Who doesn't want more motivated, engaged and productive teams that require less management?


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