The case for autonomous leadership in the work environment
During the past two years, almost every employee has had the experience of working from home. As well as dealing emotionally with a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, they’ve had to negotiate a world in which they’re removed from their workplaces and colleagues, which for some, were the foundations of their workplace culture.
One of the key metrics for deciding employee engagement in a work environment is autonomy. According to research by Effectory, employees who have control over their own work express ownership in it, which in turn helps with motivation. They tend to find their work more rewarding and feel responsible for good results.
The research found employees working in small businesses felt as though they had the most autonomy over their roles (79% for employees of companies with fewer than 100 employees, as compared to 34% of employees in companies of more than 1,000 employees), but the recent change to working away from the office has meant everyone is now working more independently than ever before.
What that calls for is a change to autonomous leadership, so that employees can feel confident making their own decisions and carrying out their work in the way they deem most effective and efficient.
What does autonomous leadership mean?
When you practice a style of management that encourages independence, trust and adaptability, you’re dealing in autonomous leadership. Autonomous leaders not only give the people who work for them the complete set of tools and resources they need to do their jobs, but also empower employees to succeed by giving them the independence and authority to make decisions about their roles.
The benefits of autonomous leadership
To create ongoing success within an organisation, good leaders must move on from directive leadership (telling people what to do) towards consultative leadership (making decisions together). Research shows that when they do this, they not only get a more highly engaged, creative and happier workforce, but can also challenge their teams’ thinking more directly because they’ve built a basis for alignment and empowerment.
What does this mean for organisations and leaders? Those who are willing to agree to principles or guidelines, rather than prescribing a set of rules, will have a better chance of retaining their staff. Those who focus on equity (access to everything for everyone) over equality (everyone is the same) will have a better chance of retaining talent. Those who support autonomy will find themselves stepping into other highly prized cultural benefits, like increased resilience, well-being and inclusion.
Far from meaning completely backing away when it comes to management, autonomous leadership includes proper communication about expectations and behaviour. Think of it as a way of working independently but with guardrails to build confidence and clarity, rather than control.
Here are three of the benefits of autonomous leadership.
Autonomy is a key driver of happiness in the workplace. People feel better when they can make their own decisions and manage their lives in ways they decide independently. It works that way in organisations too. And just the same as our wider world has certain rules and expectations, so too does acting autonomously at work.
The Effectory study showed that 79% of employees who have a high degree of autonomy in the workplace have high levels of engagement. Because someone isn’t always looking over their shoulders, these workers feel as though they can work on new ideas and initiatives to solve challenges.
More importantly, though, the Gallup State of the Global Workplace report found turnover in a highly engaged workforce is reduced by 59%. The great resignation is real, and yet around 52% of employees say what they are ultimately seeking – autonomy – is lacking in their current workplace.
It’s here now, this hybrid work era, and we’ve gotta do something to meet this need. What might this mean for you as a leader? And why should you do it? Here are a couple of really good reasons.
Heightened respect and trust
Autonomous leaders display respect and trust – they believe their team members will do their jobs to the best of their abilities in a way that works for them. This attitude also encourages employees to have respect and trust for the people who lead them. Why? Because knowing they’ve been given every opportunity to perform their role in the best way they can, without someone directing their every move, empowers them to be able to share problems and seek out advice when they need it. It’s also a key driver of creativity because employees feel safer to try new ideas, experiment with concepts and lean into opportunity, rather than waiting for permission or direction.
Autonomy encourages trust between co-workers. When leaders support their team members and express confidence in their abilities it has a flow-on effect. The more we experience autonomy, the more we generate it for others. The entire team learns to respect how others accomplish their goals and pass on their knowledge and skills to one another.
Boosted employee morale
When managers focus on end results – that things are done and done well – rather than the process, it builds a sense of trust. When team members can work independently, make decisions on how to work and feel a sense of accomplishment when the results are as good or better than expected, it can only help boost morale.
The challenges of autonomous leadership
You can’t simply decide one day to take a hands-off approach and assume all these benefits will fall into place. There are challenges when embracing autonomous leadership, and not everyone in a team may be ready to take on as much responsibility and accountability as others. Never mind the fact that you, as their leader, need to understand and trust your people. It’s been touted for years as the key to effective leadership and we’re about to see why.
Of course, autonomous leadership means decreasing tactical supervision and entrusting the stages of a project will be carried out, with team members asking for help when they need it. There is the chance, however, that less supervision means issues and problems might not be identified early. Recognising those workers who are happy to work independently and helping those who might need more supervision are qualities of good autonomous leaders.
There is also the issue of miscommunication. Without proper communication and checkpoints, team members may misinterpret instructions or make assumptions about what is expected of them. Many of these problems can be avoided by implementing principles of engagement, ensuring consistent communication is part of every project. This might be something as simple as everyone in the team participating in a daily ‘stand up’ check-in, or ensuring every voice is heard across the team every week during a project meeting or update. In this way, there is a responsibility to connect and communicate; the how and when of that might be more flexible and the ownership of getting it done lies with each team member.
Tips for autonomous leadership success
The easy way to keep employees from searching outside your organisation for autonomy is to simply let them choose where they work and when. In the new world of hybrid working, successful autonomous leaders embrace flexibility. They ask their employees how they’d like to work, and even if they expect them to be in the office for a certain number of days each week (or month), they allow workers to choose when that will be.
It might be the case that not everyone in your business has a role that is as easily performed under these conditions, so look at other ways you can be flexible – perhaps earlier starts or finishes for someone who has caring responsibilities at home. It might be as simple as not asking for reasons why when someone says they need a day off. This comes back to knowing and understanding your team, and, yes, it involves a very hefty dose of trust – for both of you.
In industries where it’s easier for people to work from home, use time in the office for collaboration and regular meetings where you can give and receive feedback with your team. Setting this expectation and sticking to it consistently is one of the most effective ways in which working to ‘principles’ not ‘rules’ starts to take shape.
Here are four ways to ensure autonomous leadership helps a team to thrive.
Set clear expectations
Everyone in your team should know what their responsibilities are. This includes key tasks and deadlines. These should be followed up with regular check-ins to evaluate the work they’re doing, what you expect them to achieve before the next meeting and to get any relevant feedback they may have.
Effective and engaging onboarding
The worst thing for a new team member coming into a workplace where people work independently is feeling as though they’re asking questions about the most basic of tasks. Ensure there is an extensive training process that will enable them to slip into their roles easily and get to work. Good onboarding and training process are an investment in team members’ future autonomy.
Acknowledge and celebrate achievements
It’s one thing for a worker to feel proud of a job well done; it’s another for them to be acknowledged publicly. Recognising your team’s successes and celebrating their excellence encourages all to achieve even more. This is particularly important when your team works disparately. A study undertaken by the NeuroLeadership Institute found that distance bias is one of the most significant challenges facing leaders of autonomous teams. Recognising the performance of your team members should take priority over the proximity of your team members – because the research shows that those with greater autonomy and greater engagement are outperforming their traditional, office-based peers by 13%.
Share structured feedback
Regular feedback meetings – where feedback is both given and received – should prevent much of the miscommunication that happens when team members work independently. It also gives everyone in the organisation the support they need to thrive.
Autonomy for leaders means having quality conversations and leading with strengths. Give yourself and your team a basis for understanding one another better and your connections – in person or virtual – have a greater chance to thrive.
Getting started with autonomous leadership
While there are several challenges and common pitfalls associated with awarding employees more autonomy, you can increase the likelihood of autonomous leadership working for you and your team by setting clear expectations, having thorough onboarding practices, celebrating achievements, and providing regular feedback opportunities.
Inkling Insight: At Inkling, we believe autonomy is destined to become the cultural norm – something we’re all responsible for achieving because of the benefits it brings across the board. Think of it like risk management and OH&S – it’s everyone’s responsibility to work with autonomy and master autonomous leadership, and the best part is, it can be learned.
We hope we have given you some ideas for how you can achieve autonomous leadership success, individually and across your organisation. Get in touch with the Inkling team if you would like to find out more about how our tailored leadership development experiences can benefit your team.
Don’t forget to connect on LinkedIn with Jules Franzen, Inkling’s Head of Design and Innovation. She would love to hear your thoughts on the article and is passionate about sharing research, articles and insights with our leadership community.