24 September 2019

Why job autonomy is vital for success – and how to encourage it

Denying your people the independence to take ownership of projects is a recipe for poor performance; here are five steps to supporting employee autonomy in your organisation

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Lindsay Harriss

Lindsay Harriss

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Employee engagement Leadership and management

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Denying your people the independence to take ownership of projects is a recipe for poor performance; here are five steps to supporting employee autonomy in your organisation

Having one or two micromanagers in your organisation might be troublesome, but it’s unlikely to threaten your success. However, having a business full of micromanagers – and, therefore, little employee autonomy – presents a much more significant threat to your organisation’s survival.

Employees who are free to make their own choices about how they go about their responsibilities are happier, more committed, more productive and more loyal than those whose every action is prescribed. Autonomy is also an important contributing factor to employees’ sense of engagement with their work and organisation, and plays a big part in workers’ decisions to stay with an organisation or seek a new role elsewhere.

The degree of autonomy that a worker can experience can vary significantly from day to day; they may, for example, have a say in how to approach their day-to-day tasks, but less control over the strategic direction of their team or organisation, for example. But is your organisation trusting of its employees by default, or does it resort to command-and-control structures? Is there greater scope for your workers to make their own, independent decisions?

Every person will have a slightly different way of working, depending on their skills, experience, and personal preferences. Understanding and capitalising on these differences is key if your organisation wants to innovate, be creative and, ultimately, be successful.

What are the advantages of employee autonomy?

There are lots of reasons why it pays to allow and encourage employees to act and think independently, including:

  • Greater happiness and engagement
  • Every individual feels accountable and therefore wants to perform at their best
  • Employees feel more valued
  • They feel motivated to learn new skills
  • Greater productivity
  • Greater sense of team and organisational culture
  • Improved work-life balance

And these reasons are backed up by academic research. A study of nearly 1,400 healthcare workers in Taiwan found autonomy to be linked with greater job satisfaction, and a lower likelihood of leaving their positions, while a 2017 study by the University of Birmingham found that employees who have higher levels of autonomy at work reported greater sense of wellbeing and job satisfaction. Commenting on the study, researcher Dr Daniel Wheatley said: “Greater levels of control over work tasks and schedule have the potential to generate significant benefits for the employee, which was found to be evident in the levels of reported wellbeing. The positive effects associated with informal flexibility and working at home offer further support to the suggestion that schedule control is highly valued and important to employees ‘enjoying’ work.”

How can you encourage autonomy?

1. Build a culture of trust

Leaders who are willing to trust their employees to perform the projects delegated to them need to accept the risks that may accompany their subsequent actions. When managers resist delegating, employees interpret this behaviour as being caused by a lack of trust. This leads to a culture of mistrust and one lacking in autonomy and initiative. But it’s easily rectified: simply consulting people about projects and tasks will allow trust to grow and new ideas to emerge. It’s best to start small and gradually increase an individual’s responsibilities and freedom as they prove their capabilities, rather than offer them an overwhelming amount of autonomy to begin with and be forced to backtrack if things don’t work out.

2. Learn from mistakes

Allowing individuals to adapt their approach to their responsibilities will give them an increased sense of control over the tasks they’ve been charged with, which will benefit their performance.

Leaders that are overly critical of employees’ mistakes kill initiative and creativity and, consequently, employee engagement. If your workforce is fearful of the repercussions of honest mistakes, both engagement and performance will drop.

3. Communicate regularly

Holding regular meetings to monitor and review progress against goals and deadlines, identify roadblocks, and where an individual or team needs more support or resources will give both employees and managers a chance to raise concerns and also to celebrate where an employee has taken ownership of a task and succeeded. A thankless culture will only serve to dissuade individuals from wanting to assume the additional accountability that is synonymous with autonomy.

4. Hire the right people

Recruiting people with the right mindset and attitude will help shift your organisation’s culture away from command-and-control and towards autonomy. Some individuals require detailed direction and supervision, while others prefer, and thrive on, being their own boss and using their own initiative and innovation. When engaging with candidates – both during the interview stage and as part of your onboarding process – autonomy should be a key part of the conversation. However, be careful not to overstate the degree to which autonomy is encouraged; it is far better to be honest about how independent a role may or may not be, so a candidate is not disappointed or shocked on joining your organisation.

5. Move aside

There’s little point encouraging autonomy if leaders continue to micromanage and put unnecessary barriers to independence in place. Managers will want to strike the right balance of giving employees the freedom to complete tasks as they see fit, while remaining on hand to provide support and advice. Setting clear goals and metrics will ensure that employees know what is required and will set them up for success.

This article was first published in March 2017. It was updated in September 2019 for freshness, clarity and accuracy.