Autonomy in the Workplace

By Shawn Black posted 20 days ago

Autonomy in the Workplace

A plan to promote a positive and prosperous work environment could contain many facets, but one absolutely imperative characteristic is autonomy. By granting employees autonomy within their role, you provide them with the opportunity to combine the use of their left and right brain, promoting creative solutions to real problems.  

For many people, autonomy’s foil, micromanaging, is their natural leadership style. Because they do not trust the team they work with, they find it easier to control every decision their employees make. They are plagued by questions, continually worrying that an employee will make the wrong decision or complete a project incorrectly. They hold themselves back from the progress they could be making on their own because they spend so much time worrying about their employees.

To better understand autonomy and how it can contribute to a strong, healthy business, we will look at the benefits of autonomy, different ways to promote autonomy, and the challenges that autonomy can present in the workplace.

Benefits of Autonomy in the Workplace

Allowing your employees the freedom of autonomy in their role comes with numerous benefits. First of all, autonomy inherently builds trust in the workplace. Giving your employees the freedom to make decisions without looking over their shoulder proves that you trust them and their work. It also empowers them to take control and step out into creative and productive directions. By meeting your expectations, they justify the trust you have given, and thus a circle of trust and empowerment is created.

Along with trusting and empowering your employees, autonomy allows space for employees to be creative. When you give people specific rules and criteria that they must follow, you strip them entirely of their creativity. They become people who are good at following detailed instructions rather than problem-solvers. By giving them autonomy, they have the opportunity to engage both their left and right brains to come up with creative, successful solutions that push the envelope.  

Similarly, allowing employees to have autonomy encourages them to grow in their position. Rather than following instructions and going to their supervisor every time a small issue arises, they learn how to troubleshoot and fix problems. Employees begin to think outside the box, considering positions other than their own. This promotes a workspace that operates like a well-oiled machine because each person is considerate of others, looking for ways to complete tasks more efficiently.

One reason that autonomy is useful in the workplace is that people know themselves best. When managers and supervisors place strict regulations on workflow and work environment, they cannot account for how each employee works best. Each employee is in-tune with themselves, and they know what their strengths and weaknesses are. When they are given autonomy, they can play to their strengths and improve their shortcomings within their structure.

To fully grasp the benefits of workplace autonomy, it is essential to talk about workplaces built on micromanagement. When people that are overly-controlling are in charge, they destroy individual creativity. The only person who has creativity in these situations is the overly-controlling boss because they create the system that everyone must strictly follow. This allows for almost no individual growth within the business, as employees cannot stretch themselves and learn in new situations. Instead, everything is handled by their superior. Typically, companies that operate in this way see little growth and short lifespans.  

How to Promote Autonomy

Just as it can be gained from a workplace that utilizes autonomy, trust is the most crucial component of promoting autonomy. If you do not trust your employees, you will have difficulty allowing them the space and freedom necessary for an autonomous work structure. You can show your employees that you trust them by stepping away from the specifics of their workflow. Instead, check-in with their work on a broader spectrum, ensuring that they continue to meet the standards you set.

Secondly, it is vital that you understand the difference between giving instructions and giving a general direction. Consider sharing the advice to be like setting up guardrails along the highway of the creative path. You want to provide enough of an idea that your team knows what direction they should be going in, but not so much that it strangles their creativity.

When employees come to you with questions, consider what they are asking for specifically. If they are looking for advice or opinions, take this time to share thoughts about what direction you want the project to go in. Again, it is crucial that you do not lay out specific rules but rather give opinions about handling the task or situation. It is beneficial to wait for them to come to you for these opinions, as it shows them that you trust them and are not looking over their shoulder.

Challenges That Come with Autonomy

As with any business strategy, autonomy comes with its unique challenges. Luckily, you can easily combat these challenges. One difficulty your employees will face with their newfound independence is an influx of decisions they need to make. Decisions are inevitable and come with freedom at work. They could range from specific decisions about a project to larger decisions about finding solutions to projects. These decisions can be overwhelming to someone who is not comfortable making decisions. 

It is crucial that you teach your team the art of decision making. The most important part of making a decision is ensuring that you have many choices to choose from when making the decision. By maximizing the number of choices available, you increase the number of suitable options available. This is why you should encourage your team to avoid dilemmas, or decisions that only have two options. These typically lead to less favorable outcomes and should be avoided when possible.  

While autonomy is a net positive for the workplace, not all people enjoy being given this freedom at work. Some people prefer a lot of rules and guidelines to follow. With these people, you will need to spend more time explaining the importance of autonomy and encouraging them to find space for their creativity. Come up with examples for how they can use their creativity, and guide them on the path to embracing their autonomy. Inevitably, this will not work out for a few employees, but the discomfort is typically felt by the employee as well.

Granting your team autonomy can be intimidating, but the benefits far outweigh the fears. By trusting and empowering your employees, you can create a work environment that promotes creativity, progress, and success.

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