Autonomy at work has been credited with increased engagement and productivity levels as well as making employees more committed to the firm
Entrepreneurs often refer to their firms as their “baby” or “brainchild” and much like the anxiety experienced by new mothers, their sole object of attention and affection is thier company. It’s no one guess then that these entrepreneurs often find it understandably difficult to delegate responsibilities and define essential roles to complete strangers (aka new employees). It might even be argued that the degree of investment that employers have towards their organisation, can neither be understood nor paralleled by the employees, who are likely to be pegged as ‘temporary boarders’ for the period that their paths meet the organisation’s.
While it’s difficult to ascertain how long an employee is going to stay at the firm or their degree of investment and commitment to the company, it is important for an employer to ensure the journey is worthwhile. What does that mean? Well, it means excluding everything that makes for an unpleasant trip: no hand-holding, no backseat driving and certainly no yelling directions.
Within the professional domain, this translates into providing your team with an ample amount of employee autonomy. Employee autonomy can be best defined as the ability and freedom of a workforce to take control of its work situations. At this point if it appears to you that this freedom should be an obvious or natural element of work culture that should operate without the need to be specified or emphasised, you are absolutely right. What’s more, employee autonomy is one of the prime, if not the greatest, contributor to increased engagement as well as productivity levels, and this comes as no surprise.
As human beings, we crave autonomy, a feeling that brings with it a sense of independence, a sense of control and a sense of value to our life experiences. True autonomy at work helps bring forth these factors of independence, control and value in ways that prove beneficial to not only the personal and professional growth of the individual but also the organisation.
‘Independence’ at work is the freedom of choice experienced by employees when it comes to making professional decisions regarding their roles or specific projects, and this helps feel invested and take complete ownership of their responsibilities. ‘Control’ at work is the degree of power experienced by the employees over their activities and it helps them bring in new methods of approaching issues , problem-solving and applying individual skills in innovative ways. Lastly, autonomy helps employees find the much-sought ‘value’ in the work they do by getting the chance to better understand the context within which their efforts fit into the larger picture and their overall impact on the company’s functioning. Each of these factors, brought about by increased employee autonomy, helps employees relate to their work better and hence, lead to greater satisfaction and productivity levels.
The long-term impact of employee autonomy on the workforce is such that people go so far as to see it as a deciding factor between two lucrative employment opportunities. This was shown most recently with a study, conducted by researchers Joris Lammers and Janka Stoker on 2,000 employees across three continents, concluding that “people were nearly two and a half times more likely to take a job that gave them more autonomy than they were to want a job that gave them more influence”. Can you believe that?
As it turns out, however, the lack or even entire absence of employee autonomy is a more prevalent feature of work cultures across the board than might first appear. One of the prime forms in which autonomy is taken away from a workforce comes in the form of the dreaded M-word: Micro-management.
While several would expect ‘authority’ to lie at the other end of the spectrum from ‘autonomy’, the truth is that in today’s professional world, it is ‘micro-management’ that serves as the true enemy to the prevalence of employee autonomy. Authority does not necessarily have a negative connotation and indeed, when done right and in healthy doses, it helps establish the unspoken boundaries within which autonomy might be exercised. Micro-management, however, immediately betrays a lack of trust and a need for control that sets aside any consideration toward the intention, potential and capabilities of the individual team members entrusted with their particular tasks. What’s more, employers might not be aware of the regularity with which they exercise micro-management, nor of the adverse consequences it has on employee morale.
In fact, a research paper by Collins SK titled “Micromanagment – A Costly Management Style”, elaborates at length about how micromanagement proves harmful to company morale, leading in turn, to low productivity and high turnover levels. What’s more, he concludes that micro-management features most prominently as one of the top three reasons employees quit their jobs!
But even as I successfully establish the place of autonomy and micro-management on the scale of favourability, this begs the most important question of all: How can you, as an employer, ensure that your team truly receives the employee autonomy they deserve?
Handing over or even loosening the grip on the control you hold as the captain of the ship might not be as hard as it may seem, provided you take the right steps gradually and in the right order.
Firstly, reconcile yourself with the wise recruitment decisions you have made in the past and place trust in the judgment you exercised in your hiring decisions. At the end of the day, the several recruitment struggles that you as an employer may have gone through, should prove fruitful. The best way to get your efforts’ worth is to give the individuals you trusted enough to hire, the freedom and opportunity to do his/her assigned job the way he or she deems best.
After all, if you were to monitor and govern every little action that our employees take, what’s the point of an interview and a recruitment drive? You could go out and hire just about anyone. It is the value addition of a good hire that gives your organisation that much-needed edge over your competition. Imagine the new paradigms your ship may steer towards when several bright minds are allowed to come up with innovative ideas and methods.
Secondly, cover your base by providing your team with the tools and resources they might need along the way. Once you learn to invest in people, it is the most natural progression of events to be able to invest in their plans and ideas while encouraging them with an assurance that the possibilities for growth are endless and that efforts and endeavours will always be welcomed by leadership support.
Lastly, but most importantly, help yourself come to terms with the fact that letting go of control and handing the reins over to other people does not eliminate the possibility of them falling prey to human error. Everyone makes mistakes, and it is possible, rathr indeed likely, that your team might make some too. But nothing helps foster a sense of ownership than an exhibition of resilience after a fall, an opportunity for people to dust themselves off and bounce back into the game.
As frightening as handing over responsibilities may be, thanks to the possibility of a disappointment, make sure not to lose sight of the fact that there was no guarantee you wouldn’t have made the same mistake if you were in their position. After all, what is autonomy but extending unto others the considerations that we would unflinchingly extend unto ourselves.