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12 April 2023

How to Create a Culture of Autonomy in the Workplace

Jairek Robbins


Boosting Your Team’s Autonomy


According to a recent Gallup survey that polled about 67,000 people last year, only 32 percent of Americans say they are engaged at work.

While the reasons for not being engaged are diverse and range from being in an industry that’s not right for you or being in the wrong role, increased workplace autonomy can help to boost employee engagement at work.

Workplace Autonomy vs. Personal Autonomy


Autonomy generally has to do with having the liberty to choose what you do, how you do it and when or where you do it. In the personal life realm, it comes down to setting and working towards the attainment of your own goals. If things don’t go according to plan, only you or those immediately close to you like family members are affected.

In contrast, autonomy at work involves other team members and the organization at large, so autonomy here has to be exercised within the broader context of the organization you work for. If things go wrong while you exercise your autonomy at work, your team will be affected, and the organization could also suffer some adverse effects. Autonomy at work therefore has to be managed so that teams attain their goals.

How to Boost Your Team’s Autonomy


1. Hire Right

Autonomy is about giving employees the liberty to take greater control of the projects that they work on. They get to set goals, choose their methodology, and determine delivery timelines. Not everyone is comfortable working in this way, because some workers may have become entrenched in a style that involves micromanagement.

As a leader, it is your duty to ensure that your team is made up of individuals who will thrive in an environment that gives them autonomy. When you have the right people in place, you can guide and mentor them to blossom in their roles.

2. Communicate Effectively

As you take steps to give your team greater autonomy, make sure that you communicate to them effectively.

For example, goals should be agreed upon and communicated clearly to all the concerned employees so that they are clear on the deliverables on a certain project.
Without this clarity, employees will second-guess everything they do because they will be uncertain about what the expected outcomes are.

When you communicate clearly as a leader, you give your team the anchor or guidepost that they need to move forward with confidence. You can then keep an eye on how things are progressing so that you come in to provide guidance if employees are veering off-course.

3. Allow Room for Mistakes

For workplace autonomy to thrive, a culture of letting people work without the fear that they will be penalized for making a mistake is crucial. Workplace autonomy is intended to empower employees to take on greater responsibility for the work that they do, and mistakes are an inevitable result of taking on more and more responsibility.

Instead of blaming those who make mistakes, leaders need to use those mistakes as opportunities for learning. Don’t come in and take charge because the team has made a mistake. Rather, come in to guide the team to extract lessons from what has just happened and guide them in the process of choosing a better way to proceed, and then leave them to take charge of the process.

This approach empowers employees to be better able to anticipate and avoid problems, or find workable solutions to the problems that arise from time to time. Their confidence and skills will grow the more you look at mistakes as growth opportunities.

4. Trust the Team

You have in place the right people for each role, and you have communicated your expectations clearly to them. Now is the time for you to get out of the way and let your employees take charge of doing the work that you have assigned to them.

Trust is crucial to the success of workplace autonomy. When employees know that you trust them to do their jobs, they go at their tasks with confidence, innovation and high levels of engagement because they want to show that you were right to trust them with the work you assigned to them.
Don’t assign tasks and then come in to control every aspect of how that task is performed. Get out of the way and let your team shine!

5. Give Autonomy to Everyone

As you boost autonomy at your workplace, don’t be selective regarding who you grant autonomy. For example, don’t only give autonomy to team leaders. Let everyone have autonomy and this will give employees room to reach their full potential as they mature in their roles.

For instance, your sales team will discuss and agree on what targets to aim for, and someone within the group may emerge as the person to keep an eye on progress towards the attainment of those team goals. In this way, leaders are likely to emerge at all levels of the company, and that will increase cohesiveness and resilience within the organization since there will be people who can step up should any leadership be required.

6. Delegate More

You can also boost autonomy by delegating more functions to your team. For example, if you were previously in charge of formulating the strategic plan of the organization, you can now involve team leaders in this activity. They too can work on different aspects of the strategic plan with their teams so that a comprehensive plan is generated.

The more you delegate, the better you will be at your role of providing leadership because you will have time to attend to big picture tasks rather than being swallowed in the minutiae of the day to day operations of the firm.

Summing it up…

Fostering greater autonomy at the workplace has to be implemented carefully to avoid inadvertently creating an environment where people think they are free to do anything or nothing. Delegation doesn’t mean you abdicate your role as a leader; you are still in charge, but operating from the sidelines.

As team autonomy grows, you will see an increase in employee engagement, greater satisfaction with work, higher levels of innovation and creativity, increased productivity, and reduced employee turnover, among other benefits. Those are worthy outcomes to strive for. Get to work and build autonomy into your team!

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