How to Create Autonomy in the Workplace 

by Beth Osborne in January 29th, 2020
How to Create Autonomy in the Workplace

You've looked over hundreds of resumes, interviewed dozens of candidates, called references and checked backgrounds. Now, you've finally found your rockstar. It's time to let them show you what they've got without you hovering. If you're a manager or team leader, autonomy in the workplace means empowering your employees to be self-starters and problem-solvers.

Micromanaging your team sends that signal that you don't trust them and can lead to disengagement and poor job satisfaction. Giving your team autonomy is critical for your company's ability to grow and produce exceptional leaders. Although many businesses claim to support employee autonomy, this may be a blind spot for your organization if it's not a significant part of your culture.

Examples of Autonomy in the Workplace

Autonomy in the workplace means your employees have the chance to do exactly what you hired them to do. Allowing employees space and opportunity to thrive will only benefit the organization as a whole. Follow these best practices to boost and encourage employee autonomy.

Flexibility

Dr. Daniel Wheatley from the University of Birmingham Business School reports that “schedule control is highly valued” and that it is a key part of helping employees enjoy and find fulfillment in their work.

Rather than measuring an employee's effectiveness based on how many hours they work, give them the freedom to make their own schedules and work remotely. What matters most is that they do their job well and complete tasks on time. Offering them the ability to choose how they work shows you trust them and demonstrates your commitment to autonomy in the workplace. If your industry doesn't allow for completely remote schedules, try a hybrid model or work in a flexible vacation policy.

Accountability

Create a space for employees to have open and honest conversations with management without fear of being fired or other repercussions. Mistakes happen, and they can create great teaching moments for all parties involved. When senior leaders choose to coach instead of criticize, this strengthens relationships with employees and gives them the confidence to overcome the challenges that are a natural part of work. Fostering this open communication with your team improves accountability for their work and its results.

Ownership

If you want your employees to be on board with a project, you need to let them help steer the ship. If they don't feel that part of the initiative is theirs, then they are likely to go through the motions, simply doing the bare minimum.

For example, if you know an employee has a specific skill or experience that would be valuable for a new project, then encourage them to share their knowledge and lead. This kind of employee autonomy can jumpstart a project and lets the employee know their input is valued.

Listening

We all perform best when we feel heard and that our suggestions are taken seriously. Lots of managers send out engagement surveys and 360-degree assessments. By doing this, you are telling employees you want their honest feedback. However, if you don't do anything with what you collect, you are inadvertently showing your people that their opinions don't matter.

To build autonomy on your team, pay attention to what employees are saying. Team members with their "boots on the ground" have a different and valuable perspective on where the gaps and weaknesses are. Then – and this can be the tricky part – don't just jump in to fix and do. Instead, work together with your team to change processes, communications and systems to improve your company and culture.

Fulfillment

You may have an employee who has a passion for working with clients inside specific industries, such as non-profits or entertainment. Some employees might lean more on the creative side of projects. Or, you may have a culture cheerleader who loves planning team-building events for the workplace. When you create an environment that allows employees to feel rewarded and fulfilled by engaging in meaningful work, they will be encouraged to pursue areas of passion and interest within your organization.

Support

One way to zap the passion out of your team is by giving them goals they can never achieve because they don't have the right tools. They may need technology, training, and/or  input from subject matter experts. Autonomy in the workplace has as much to do with access as it does trust. Without the right tools, frustration and disengagement can build. Alternatively, ensuring your people are set up to succeed by providing them what they need is a pathway to more robust employee autonomy.

The Benefits of Autonomy in the Workplace

Supporting employees to own their role and purpose builds trust and loyalty within your organization. When workers are empowered, productivity and engagement soar. The happier employees are, the lower the turnover and its associated costs in both dollars and efficiency. The retention of staff simplifies succession planning and promotion. Promoting from within the organization creates more loyalty and closes the loop of autonomy.

How to Encourage Workplace Autonomy

Trust and communication are the essential foundations on which to build autonomy. Autonomy is the antithesis of micromanagement. Intentionally recruit employees who can own their work and place within your organization, and then let them. Management should set clear goals and metrics and be sure to provide the tools and support for success. Offering all positions opportunities for advancement motivates employees to give their best and creates loyalty at all levels of your organization.

Higher Autonomy Can Drive Greater Resilience

Resilience is a powerful attribute for employees, and autonomy done well can foster resilience.  If your workplace is highly controlled and doesn't offer individuals the opportunity to think for themselves, it may create an atmosphere of "learned helplessness."

In this scenario, employees don't bother to add ideas or opinions. They merely passively wait for direct orders. Stifling ideas is not a situation that's conducive to growth or innovation. Resilient employees can handle the demands of the workplace better because they feel they have a say. They'll also respond better to change and challenges.

Cultivating a workplace where autonomy is encouraged and rewarded should be a priority for your business if you care about results. If you don't trust your employees to handle their responsibilities, then they'll figure it out quickly and seek a better environment. Don't be a short stop on their way to a fulfilling career. Instead, be a workplace where everyone wants to stay by making autonomy part of the culture of your business.