Humans have traversed oceans and fought wars in search of independence. Children have screamed and cried to the point of exhaustion in attempts to gain control. It’s so powerful a concept that psychologist and author Daniel Pink explains in his book Drive that autonomy is one of the three fundamental drivers of motivation. At the heart of humanity, we want the ability to decide for ourselves.
As a manager, you have the ability to increase the autonomy of your team, thereby enabling greater engagement, dedication and even performance.
AUTONOMY COMES IN DIFFERENT FORMS
How you do your work
Are people able to complete their work in whatever ways they see fit? There is a delicate balance between too much and not enough guidance. In many instances, it’s beneficial to establish streamlined processes based on prior experience and best practice. But over time, these can become stale or outdated, instead serving as a form of micromanagement that limits creativity and reduces performance. On occasion, strict protocols may not even be ideal to begin with. As managers, sometimes we overly value what works well for us which inhibits our team members from developing what works best for them
When you work
Can people work whatever hours are best for them? Research shows that we all have best and worst hours for different types of work. We also have external demands like dropping kids off at daycare or being home in time for dinner with the family. Sometimes we are unnecessarily constrained by the American societal norm of the 9am-5pm workday. Yes, it’s helpful to have set overlapping hours to ensure real time availability and opportunities for meetings, but does it need to be a full eight hours?
Where you work
Are people required to be in the office? There are absolute benefits derived from sitting alongside colleagues and spending time in person with one another in meetings, but those benefits can take a toll. Long commutes eat into time with family. Limited vacation days restrict travel opportunities. Yet, given the capabilities of technology to help us stay connected, we now know that teams can be effective even when members are located around the world.
Who you work with
Are there opportunities for people to choose who they work with? In small organizations you don’t always get a choice of who you work with, but in larger organizations or teams, there may be times when you can choose to work with people whom you collaborate best. It’s natural to have synergy with certain colleagues and a frustrating dynamic with others. In addition to investing in healing strained relationships, it’s also worthwhile to seek opportunities for people to work with colleagues who naturally bring out the best in each other.
What you work on
Do people have a choice in their projects or assignments? The ability to decide what work you do affects intrinsic motivation. When we buy into the work, we’re more persistent, creative, and effective. Even though most work is assigned, on occasion there may flexibility with who does the work, allowing you to offer a task to multiple people and enabling them to agree on the owner.
Another approach to providing greater choice is to engage people in the decision-making and planning process, allowing them to help determine what work needs to be done. In addition to generating buy-in, this has the added benefit of gathering input on the strategy or design for the work from the individual closest to it who often has an important perspective.
AUTONOMY IS NOT ONE SIZE FITS ALL
It’s your job to figure out what kind of autonomy matters most to each of your direct reports, and do your best to cater to those desires while maintaining a standard of excellence in the work product or results achieved. We each value autonomy but to greater or lesser degrees for each kind. For example, some people love gaining the extra hours with their kids by avoiding a commute while others get distracted by their children and feel less productive when working from home.
There are also constraints that may limit what’s possible. Some roles or responsibilities require certain hours of availability or location-based work. If you’re a customer service rep, you likely need to be available during standard work hours. If you’re a retail manager, you may need to be in the physical store. In other cases, the constraints come from organizational policies or legal requirements. Your organization may limit remote workdays or have strict guidelines on office hours. Be sure to check with HR to ensure you’re in compliance with any organizational policies and legal regulation.
CREATE THE CONDITIONS FOR PEOPLE TO THRIVE
Managing greater autonomy requires a combination of structures, systems and supports along with particular skills and competencies. Being a ‘hands-off’ manager is not the same as providing autonomy. Rockstar managers provide the right kinds of guidance and support for each team member. This may manifest as a daily check in for some and monthly goal setting sessions for others. You can also help people develop the skills that enable them to take on greater autonomy. Use this as an chance to promote growth and build capability for the future.
In addition to individual work, greater autonomy affects how people work together within a team. It’s critical to clarify any new ways of working, such as communication practices and tools, that enable people to stay connected and supported. It’s helpful to agree on measurements of success so everyone can assess how the increased autonomy is impacting work product and team dynamics.
Regardless of how you approach autonomy, remember it’s a journey. To help you open the conversation with your team, download my guide to Providing Autonomy that Works at mamieks.com/podcast-005. In this worksheet, you’ll find questions for reflection and conversation, along with suggested structures, systems and supports to help you successfully create great autonomy for your team. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.
You can also listen to every episode here.
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