Give your team autonomy

11 January, 2021

Empower your team by giving them the space to make decisions and play to their strengths - with guardrails for support.

Trust people and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Autonomy has taken a hit during this pandemic. From mandatory lockdowns to unavoidable health risks, our sense of individual control has been stripped away in key areas of life. On top of restrictions around movement and lifestyle, many people are also coping with diminished autonomy at work, due to rising micromanagement on the part of leaders.

The tendency to micromanage was made worse by the sudden switch to WFH. With team members working remotely, anxious leaders felt an increasing need for more visibility and control. As a result, there seems to be a sharp rise in overly stringent processes and systems, with every last detail nailed down. Some companies supposedly even turned to surveillance technologies to track how exactly employees spend their work-hours at home: every keystroke and website visit is logged, and each hour’s input/output is recorded.

Thus, managers who are willing to share the reins end up with more committed, higher-performing teams (who also happen to be less susceptible to burnout)

The problem with this level of managerial control is that it leaves very little room for imagination and ownership, with individual talents getting buried under rigid rules. On the other hand, an autonomous leadership style has been shown to increase trust, loyalty and engagement. According to a study by the University of Melbourne, employees with greater say in their own workflow and schedule are likelier to be intrinsically motivated and be self-driven. Thus, managers who are willing to share the reins end up with more committed, higher-performing teams (who also happen to be less susceptible to burnout).

A few weeks ago, I had written about how you can build accountability within your team. This week, my message focuses on a different yet equally important facet of leadership: creating autonomy. How can you facilitate self-governance within your team, while also providing them with the support they need?

A fine balance

If authoritarian leaders are at one end of the spectrum, then on the other extreme you have leaders with a totally hands-off approach, which makes it difficult for their teams to reach out for advice, measure success and stay on track. Autonomy doesn’t mean abandoning your team, nor does it translate to ambiguity and chaos. Hence, a good leader must learn to balance accountability with autonomy. Every team needs an agreed-upon mission and goals, a way to measure success and strong structures. Within this broader framework, however, team members should have enough freedom to get creative, play to their strengths, and find genuine enjoyment in their work. With individual discretion comes the ability to think out of the box, come up with solutions and respond to emerging issues quickly.

Spotify, the music streaming platform, is a good example of a company where autonomy is embedded into the structure as well as the culture. The workforce is organised into small, agile teams called squads, each of which is responsible for a distinct feature of the product. While squads enjoy a huge amount of freedom, they are also fully accountable for their own feature, be it a success or failure. Spotify’s innovation-friendly environment includes checks and balances to limit the damage of failed experiments.

Here are eight recommendations for leaders to create greater autonomy within their teams and organisation:

1. Focus on the destination.

In a Fast Company article, Mitchell Demeter explains that in the context of business, it’s more important to decide on the destination than to spell out every aspect of the journey: 

Agree on the critical logistics: meeting place, arrival time, luggage essentials; then let your employees choose how they get there. Some might take a motorcycle, others might fly or choose an evening drive. If what vehicle your employees choose, what time of day they travel, and the route they select all lead to the same place, it can only benefit to allow them the freedom they desire to enjoy the journey. 

As a leader, your role is to set the end goal and explain its purpose, i.e., the ‘what’ and ‘why’. Once these are established, the team can take charge of mapping out the ‘how’ without you looking over their shoulder – this is key to developing a sense of ownership. When people have control over the way they work, they are also more invested in ensuring a positive outcome.

2. Share an optimal amount of information.

To operate autonomously, your team needs the right strategic information. Some leaders share too little, making it tough for team members to make sound decisions independently. Others give out too much data, which can be overwhelming and confusing. Yet other leaders give out exactly the information they think is most valuable, which prevents the team from finding creative routes to reach the destination.

Ideally, you should provide a margin of information within which the team is likely to operate, and be transparent about everything within this zone. You can also advise them on how to discover further information that may be relevant to achieving the goal. 

3. Get past the need for visibility.

Some leaders monitor their team’s every move, decision and action. Not only is this disempowering for the team but also a waste of the leader’s time. If you have trouble trusting your employees to accomplish day-to-day tasks, it’s time to look inwards. What is the reason behind your hesitation to hand over control? Could educating yourself about team members’ capabilities repair this trust deficit? Are there ways in which you can remove the temptation to micromanage, such as doing away with surveillance tech?

Like many leaders, you may find yourself leading a team that is at least partially remote for the foreseeable future – which means that employees will continue to do their work out of your sight. This makes it all the more important to overcome the desire for constant visibility.

4. Pay attention to the right metrics.

Despite the growing obsession around measuring each and every aspect of the workflow, good leaders realise that not everything can – or should – be measured. Don’t spend precious resources measuring the input; instead, shift your focus to the output. This means cutting down team check-ins to no more than 1-2 times a week and tracking only significant milestones. 

5. Make space for differences.

Mandating the same system for the entire team can impair productivity – after all, not everyone functions in the same way. Leaders who allow for greater flexibility make it possible for team members to leverage their unique talents. In the article referenced above, Demeter explains this principle through the example of communication: 

Some employees communicate best in Slack, others email, Excel, or Powerpoint decks. Allowing for variation in work language may seem like an invitation for chaos, but in reality it gives employees an opportunity to express their core ideas and contributions through a medium that is intuitive to them and plays up their strengths. Different work languages may also resonate better with other key members of your team.

6. Communicate the big picture.

Senior leaders, in particular, should focus on defining and communicating the overall vision, direction and priorities of the organisation. Instilling a strategic mindset is extremely empowering: it gives employees the right context within which to take decisions and act. At Spotify, the mantra is:

Alignment enables autonomy – the greater the alignment, the more autonomy you can grant.

Many well-intentioned leaders get into the minutiae of day-to-day tasks and problems in an effort to be supportive. But without on-the-ground knowledge, their involvement can be more of a hindrance than a help. Plus, the team is likely to perceive this as a lack of faith in their capabilities.

7. Choose the right mix of flexibility and processes.

In their Harvard Business Review article, Bain & Company partners Michael Mankins and Eric Garton (who have written an excellent book, Time, Talent, Energy) explain that the appropriate balance between innovation and consistency depends on the division: 

Think of new product development, or the parts of the company’s value chain and business model that are undergoing significant reinvention because of digital transformations. In these activities, speed of innovation is critical, and the rallying cry should be autonomy, small teams, and organizational agility.

Other areas, however, may benefit from standardized approaches. These are areas where consistent outcomes are essential and where speed of execution comes from deploying common methods, best practices, and enforced routines. The focus here should be on repeatability and efficiency.

8. Ensure skill and experience fitness.

One final consideration as you work towards creating greater autonomy: keep in mind your team members’ skillset, domain knowledge and overall experience. If certain individuals require coaching or training before they are ready to operate independently, be proactive about offering the required support and setting them up for success.

Learning to foster autonomy, balanced by accountability, is a core competence to succeed in the next-generation leadership game. Those who are able to integrate these two forces within their teams will reap remarkable rewards in terms of motivation, trust and performance. Plus, there’s the satisfaction of knowing that, given the right guidance, your team is perfectly capable of accomplishing their day-to-day work independently. There’s no better feeling for a leader, is there?


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