What comes to mind when you think of autonomy?
You might imagine your team engaging in solo work that they know how to do and you don’t need to check-in with them about.
While there is truth to this idea of autonomy, there's a lot more to it. Autonomy at its core is about ownership, accountability, trust relative to our work, and having a sense of control over how we use our time.
In a larger context, autonomy creates a sense of empowerment. The ability to pursue our preferences helps support our sense of autonomy, so how we create it in our own lives tends to vary from person to person.
Part of being an effective leader is exploring how the areas of performance and engagement can be strengthened — and autonomy is a major player in accomplishing that goal.
This is easier said than done of course when you have a global workforce spread out over time zones and continents. The desire to micro-manage and be in all the details in order to have your own sense of control is real but it’s not effective and it’s costing you productivity, and it’s costing you the engagement of your team.
To dive into the idea of why we need to give autonomy and what we’re talking about when we say that word, we have to consider human motivation — when we feel inspired, we feel motivated, which leads us to fully engage in our work and perform at our best.
Daniel Pink, the author of Drive, pinpointed three elements necessary for generating the deepest levels of motivation within ourselves: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In his words, "Control leads to compliance — autonomy leads to engagement."
This is really important. Let's look at some data that supports just how much autonomy matters in the workplace…
Researchers from the UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM revealed that if you have flexible working hours or the ability to work at your own pace (ahem, autonomy), you're likely to have higher job satisfaction and higher overall well-being than other professionals who don't.
In other words, we need it to achieve satisfaction in our careers. The study also revealed that 90% of people in managerial positions reported high levels of autonomy, while over half of all low-skilled employees reported having no autonomy at all.
Management is also not the only level with an organization that deserves autonomy. Leadership needs to support and promote empowerment and freedom of choice across all levels within their organization.
Published in the journal, PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY BULLETIN, "gaining autonomy quenches the desire for power," and people would rather work in a non-managerial, autonomous position that grants self-empowerment than take a promotion offering power over others.
People are seeking control over their own lives and appear to have little desire to control the lives of others. This should serve as a wake-up call to leadership — the possibility of a promotion may not be a top motivator for employees, but they may be seeking one if they think it will grant them more autonomy.
This can manifest in many various ways in different cultures. however, the desire for autonomy is a human desire. Below are four tips to provide autonomy to your global workforce in order to better set them up for success:
1. Respect time boundaries.
Recently, my team had a month wherein our results were nowhere we wanted them to be. After traveling globally, I came back to HQ and saw how the month was going to end and I had a moment of sheer panic – so I sprung a surprise strategy session on their calendars for the next morning ready to dig in.
What’s the problem with this? I did not take my team’s schedule into consideration at all. They had their days planed, their week planned and because I am their boss and I knew I could, I said, drop your plans and do what I want.
Don’t get me wrong, there might be crisis situations that call for this, but after reflecting I realized this is something I do often.
Having a sense of individual power over how time at work is arranged can increase autonomy. When you respect your own time and the time of others—set boundaries and respect that even if something is urgent for you as the leader, you still need to check-in with your team and respect that they might also have urgent matters that are as important as yours.
One piece that I realized with my meeting was that I was not even prepared for it. I hadn’t reflected enough to make the time impactful.
With pre-scheduled meetings, make sure to set an intention and provide attendees with an agenda beforehand in addition to asking for meeting consent before scheduling. Ask yourself where you are wanting collaboration from your team so you can cut to the chase in meetings and focus on the most important issue(s) at hand.
If you have a global team that spans different cultures, you do want to spend time learning how meetings in that culture are run within that culture. This will provide inclusivity and build trust with your team.
2. Provide trust and flexibility.
The reality is that trust and flexibility are easy to give others when things are going well. It’s when you are in difficult times as a team that we tend to want to micro-manage. Two questions I always ask myself when leading others and the results are off are:
- Are they doing everything we have agreed on?
- If it’s a performance issue, have I shared my feedback/area of concern?
The thing to remember is that trust is built through consistent identity and it’s earned on both sides. If you don’t trust your team there is an underlying issue you are not tackling, it’s that simple.
Don’t put this off and instead hover over your team and their performance – tackle your toughest challenge and have the conversation.
3. Delegate to develop.
Delegating to develop your team will increase autonomy by empowering them to make decisions. Not only does this communicate your own trust in their ability, but it also provides them with an opportunity to strengthen their own self-trust. Effective delegation will allow employees to develop personally and professionally and provides them with opportunities to take action in new ways.
4. Have conversations about the current level of autonomy in your organization.
If you're a leader and you want to develop autonomy within your global team, then you need to ask for feedback on how they currently feel and think. You can start by asking your team:
- Do you feel a sense of ownership and choice when it comes to your work?
- Do you feel empowered in your schedule, and comfortable with the pace at which you're able to work?
- Do you feel there's a mutual sense of trust between colleagues?
If the answer is no to any of these questions, a conversation can open up the possibility for more autonomy. Explore how they're feeling about the current level of autonomy and discuss what changes can be made together that could improve it.
If you're an individual contributor and feel that your current work environment isn't supportive of autonomy, don't let it slide. Have a conversation with your manager or supervisor. Approaching someone in a leadership role about your desire for more autonomy can be daunting, but the cost of not having the conversation is too great.
Supporting autonomy for the people we work with is an important part of strengthening our relationships, and the state of our relationships largely impacts business ROI. Download our whitepaper THE ROI OF SKILLFUL CONVERSATION: RELATIONSHIP ADVICE FOR MEASURABLE BUSINESS RESULTS for more insights.