People Experience Series: The Autonomy Equation

‘O Captain, my Captain, Does autonomy have to do with carving one’s destiny?’

In this article, we dared to build the autonomy equation into business. To accomplish that goal, we asked ourselves several questions.

Is a successful take on challenges, what makes employees autonomous? Or might it be their ability to take initiative and create something new? Is it related to how geared they are to other people? Does it have to do with the freedom that leaders give employees to boost their creativity and transform it into innovative products and services?

Autonomy at work, actually, is a combo of all of the above, seasoned with each professional’s personality. It’s about finding the right balance between a flexible leadership and responsible employees to create work environments that are open in nature. Increased job satisfaction, higher productivity, better brand loyalty; these are just some of the benefits of favouring autonomy at the workplace.

Taking the rudder of one’s personal and professional lives is a great responsibility for all of us. Giving room for people to be autonomous is a wise organisational decision too, but like everything in life, it isn’t a “do it and let it be” thing.

In our previous People Experience Series, we shared with you tips on how to burn the burnout down and the importance of redesigning loneliness at the workplace for a mentally-wealthy and more productive workforce.

In this article, we dive into another dimension: providing autonomy. Work environments that discourage it allow powerlessness to sneak into the character and motivation of employees,  which has a multidimensional effect on them. The feeling of disempowerment, lack of motivation and a general lack of well-being leave deep psychological marks, inhibiting employees from unleashing their full potential.

To avoid this scenario, or to escape it, consider a move towards a more autonomous and empowered work culture. While employees have to own up to their responsibilities and decisions, leaders need to take on more than their manager role. It falls on them to inspire employees to do more and dream bigger, and to empower them to accomplish their goals.

When thinking of how to write this story, we searched for an iconic movie where responsibility and autonomy were pivotal for the development of its characters. After a debate that went from superhero movies to the ancient Greeks, we chose to showcase the wise words of Professor John Keating, a character interpreted by the late Robin Williams in the Dead Poets’ Society movie. This charismatic, energetic English teacher takes the lead in motivating his students to think for themselves, to unleash their creativity and to break away from the mental limitations of education and society so embedded in their minds.

Reflections on autonomy and all that comes with it

You must strive to find your own voice because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are going to find it at all.” – John Keating

According to this Harvard Business Review study, employees who feel they can act with autonomy in their day-to-day work environment tend to have stronger job performance, higher job satisfaction and greater commitment to the organisation. Additionally, nearly half of employees would give up a 20% raise for greater control over how they work.

This shows that work environments with an autonomy mindset can be a differentiating factor when attracting and retaining talent and this should act as a wake-up call for organisations.

Nowadays, the young crew, including Millennials, are in a constant search for the right work environment so they can work and deploy their creativity, and implement their ideas. They’re not just looking for a great job however, they also want to make an impact on a societietal scope too. There’s a growing desire to work in companies with a strong purpose, ones that tackle global issues such as climate change, recycling, diversity and human rights.

What does “employees acting autonomously” translate into? Employees require the freedom of choice, to have a say in what they’re doing and to use their creativity. But, although employers might understand the importance of autonomy, they can be slow to act on it.

When employees don’t feel they have room for expressing themselves, they’ll likely look elsewhere for a more autonomous work environment. That’s why building company loyalty is challenging.

If companies fail to provide a certain level of freedom, this may result in workers’ fall into the state of ‘learnt helplessness’, where they give up on taking initiative due to a feeling of a lack of control over their circumstances.

With autonomy comes great responsibility

Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.” – John Keating

Autonomy is like a vinyl record. The other side of one’s autonomous acts is being responsible for them. Side A and Side B aren’t divisible. Indeed, autonomy is also about employees’ taking responsibility and being accountable for their work.

When enabling autonomy-friendly work environments, companies need to set up clear expectations and measurable objectives and goals. For example, by encouraging employees to join projects that seem interesting to them and motivating them to use their creativity and establish relationships with other teams and departments inside their company.

By taking part in other projects and interacting with other teams, workers learn how to navigate through different perspectives and figure out how to use those perspectives in their own projects.

Like Professor John Keating wisely said: “Just when you think you know something, you have to look at in another way. Even though it may seem silly or wrong, you must try.

At the same time, companies want to create mechanisms to ensure that individual contributions can be measured and recognised. Indeed, to avoid losing perspective and falling into chaos, company frameworks are necessary. Employees need points of reference to know how the decisions they make and the consequences of those decisions are evaluated.

People Experience Series: The Autonomy Equation
‘O Captain, my Captain’: Empowering leadership

“There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.” – John Keating

Leaders have a double role to play when it comes to autonomy. Moving from the manager role to the role of the saviour of creativity and autonomy is crucial when pursuing autonomy.

In their role of team manager, leaders must adopt a ‘checking in’ mind-set rather than a ‘checking up on’ employees one. If leaders are constantly monitoring how people achieve their goals, then they are ‘checking up on’ and this can have repercussions.

A too close monitoring of employees could have the very opposite effect than the company is trying to achieve. Why? Do you like someone constantly looking over your shoulder? Over monitoring can make people feel that their judgment and skills are not valued; it can also constrain experimentation (and let’s face it, it can also be annoying). Instead, leaders will benefit more from asking questions such as, “What do you need to get this project done?” “Is anything getting in your way?” or “What can I do to help?”. In this way, leaders can ‘check in’ with people and be in a much better position to provide employees with the resources and help that they really need.

Nowadays, leaders are delegating authority, decision-making, sharing information and getting their employees involved by asking their opinions. According to the Harvard Business Review research we mentioned above, “This style of leadership works best in motivating certain types of performance and certain types of employees. “Empowering” leaders should know when they can be most effective.”

Seed and cultivate trust and transparency for a wealthy harvest

No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” – John Keating

For leaders and employees to be on the same page, they need both transparency and trust, not only in each other but also in the company’s culture.

Companies have to foster transparency, sharing with their people the information they need to make the right decisions when working autonomously.  A clear understanding of organisational strategy and well-communicated performance indicators may help employees understand how they fit in and where they should focus their efforts.

Actively involving employees in the company’s change management programmes for example, might motivate them to more readily adopt what they helped to create. This involves fostering complete transparency on where the company is heading and how, building trust into the process.

Trusting relationships are key to empowerment. Underpinning the notion of trust is the assumption that people are trustworthy until evidence emerges to the contrary. This stands in contrast to many conventional work practices built on the assumption that people need supervision to behave appropriately.

A move towards an adult-to-adult trusting environment that allows people choice and freedom by default can enable an empowering and autonomous culture in corporations.

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