#8 Giving Autonomy (Part 2 of the Motivation Series)
What if one of your team members informed you they were quitting and stated it was because of “not enough work flexibility?” Or maybe because they “are seeking more independence.” Might be cause for alarm as a leader, right?
Well, we can find these exact responses on any list of top reasons why employees leave their job. And they signal a lack of autonomy. So, let’s look at autonomy in today’s episode – what it is, why it’s important, and some ways that leaders can create it where possible.
Ok, so let’s get into it.
Josh here. Welcome to the 3x5 Leadership podcast where we champion intentional leaders who create significant impacts. In this show, we share simple, practical strategies to help you live, lead, and learn more intentionally. Thanks for joining us today. I’m so glad you’re here.
Last episode, we introduced the idea of motivation, specifically differentiating extrinsic versus intrinsic. As leaders, we should aim to cultivate intrinsic motivation, which means being driven by internal, personal motives that are not tied to an external benefit or reward. This type of motivation leads to team member commitment, where extrinsic motivation – that is being driven by external desires and rewards – really only leads to their compliance. And in that episode, which was part 1 of the motivation series, we dove into a few ways leaders can begin creating that intrinsic motivation. Probably the most powerful way to do that is giving autonomy to your people. And we are going to explore that more today.
So, let’s start with what autonomy is. Simply, autonomy is giving people the space or the latitude to work in ways that best suit them. Autonomy is freedom, flexibility, and independence. It is not, however, some extreme opposition to management and leadership oversight. Autonomy is not an absence of boundaries for people. It is not the inability for leaders to remain engaged in their team’s ongoing tasks. It focuses on clear boundaries that have appropriate space to work within.
To help us clarify autonomy, let’s look at a few examples of what it can look like. For one, it could be your boss announcing you as the project lead for the new client that was introduced at the team meeting. And after selecting you, he requests for a project update meeting with you and your team in two weeks.
It can also look like a team schedule or rhythm of routine meetings, touchpoints, and activities each week. I’ve referred to this as a battle rhythm in a previous article, but what this does is specify requirements and synchronization events throughout each week, giving the team the opportunity to organize their work around.
Finally, autonomy can look like the simple act of your boss clarifying who owns what decisions in the organization, and the risk associated with them, ultimately aiming to push down decision-making authority as much as possible.
Ok, now that we have looked at the “what” of autonomy, let’s check out “why” it’s important and reasons leaders should actually consider employing this important tool. We’ve simplified it into three things. First, autonomy nurtures a sense of responsibility and ownership in others. Think about it in the sense of owning versus renting a house. A homeowner takes great care and puts in considerable effort to maintain their house. Because it’s theirs. It’s an investment. They place lots of value in it. But a renter on the other hand, is a temporary occupant. The house and everything inside are at their disposal. The renter can use and abuse things without regard for maintaining them. It’s not their stuff, so why should they put in effort to care for it? When leaders give autonomy, they are giving someone the keys to the house and telling them, “This is yours. You’re the owner. You must care for it.” From that comes a sense of responsibility, which often leads to taking pride in it. So, autonomy creates owners, not renters.
Second, autonomy is a significant opportunity for development. There’s some research that found that people learn from three types of sources, which includes associated ratios. It reports that 70% of leaders’ learning comes from challenging experiences and assignments, most commonly associated with on-the-job training and actually doing the job or task. 20% comes from developmental relationships like mentorship and coaching. And the last 10% comes from structured learning opportunities like courses and lectures. This reveals, maybe as unfortunate news for some of us, that how we structure our peoples’ work is much more important than the hourly leader development session we schedule every month. How we structure and clarify peoples’ boundaries, roles, tasks, and decision-making authority for their jobs – which all create a level of autonomy – is probably one of the most developmentally powerful things we can do for our people. Autonomy is a considerable developmental tool.
Third, autonomy improves organizational and leader capacity. Think about the boss that assigns a project to a direct report, but is uncomfortable giving authority with that responsibility. So, the project leader has to consistently consult their boss for decision approval. The boss regularly emails this junior leader for updates. The boss even requires regular synchronization meetings to know the status of everything. Even ignoring the frustration and wasted potential of the assigned project leader, think about the wasted capacity of the boss. Consider all of the lost opportunity and capacity to do more things if the boss was not self-burdened by staying on top of the project. There are a ton of things I can begin to think of that the boss could have, and really even should have, spent their time on instead, to improve the organization, people, processes, and more.
Compare that to the boss that assigns the project lead after that person spent serving as a deputy project manager, getting time and experience learning project management. And because that project lead was appropriately educated and experienced, the boss is comfortable granting the due authority to coincide with the project responsibility. This junior leader has clearly defined roles, responsibilities, and decision authorities. The boss simply asks for an update in two weeks. And the update is an email rollup of the projected timeline, tasks complete thus far, tasks still to be completed, and identifying any areas of friction they may need support for. Think about the time, space, and capacity this boss now has to commit to more important things to benefit the organization and other leaders. Not to mention the capacity the project leader has to operate effectively and efficiently. So, autonomy also ultimately creates improved capacity for all sorts of stakeholders.
Now, at this point, I’m usually asking, “Great, I know what autonomy is and the impacts that granting it can have, but where do I give autonomy? And how?” Fair questions. So, let’s get into those now!
A guy named Daniel Pink authored this book titled, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. To be honest, I was really surprised how great this book was. I highly recommend it to continue exploring the power of intrinsic motivation and autonomy. But to overview, Pink offers four areas that leaders can grant autonomy. They are task, team, time, and technique.
Task autonomy looks at the amount of latitude we give people in their responsibilities and decision-making authority. On one extreme, being the most restrictive, can be like assigning specific tasks to our direct reports for them to execute while withholding all decision-making authority at your own level. In this case, our people become mere executors of tasks. But, looking at the other end of the spectrum, the more permissive one, can be assigning responsibility for spaces, people, processes, or systems and having them determine the tasks necessary to manage the responsibility successfully. In this case, we also grant the appropriate decision-making authority to enable them to do that. So, task autonomy is about how much freedom we grant in task designation versus determination.
Team-based autonomy means the space for people to pick their teams and who they work with. Social relations and bonding are an important source of team cohesion, so it does matter that we enjoy to work with those around us. Do we have the ability to choose our teammates and those who work for us? Do we allow our people to pick that too? This can be an impactful type of autonomy that shapes how we experience our work on a daily basis.
Now, time is probably the most precious resource in this group. And thus, it is probably the most important and sensitive component of autonomy. How much latitude can we and do we give allowing people to spend their time as they desire? How prescriptive must we be with time allocation to ensure the team is successful? Not all teams and industries can apply the same level of synchronous or asynchronous work. What must it be? What should it be for our team? And how can we give the most amount of “white space” possible in peoples’ weekly schedules for them to determine how to use?
And finally, technique is the last component of autonomy. This is allowing them to determine how they accomplish their tasks and responsibilities, rather than us specifying how. It sounds so simple, of course, but it can be quite challenging because we must walk a fine line between giving technique autonomy to people who are developed and prepared for it versus the more common approach of basically giving unprepared people responsibility and telling them to figure it out. But give people the ability to determine how they work in ways that best suit them.
So, I’d like to wrap up our exploration of autonomy today by addressing the “now what” question. How can I actually get to putting autonomy into action through my leadership? I’d like to recommend four simple approaches to inject more autonomy into how your team works.
First, lead through what we will call intent-based guidance. When you need to assign a task or designate responsibility to someone, give them the “what” and the “why” of the task, but do not the “how.” Clarify what the task or responsibility is. Define why it matters and its impact to help the person appreciate the bigger picture and their role in it. Give deadlines, expectations, and all necessary coordinating details. But do not direct how the person should go about the task. Give space for them to work in their way.
Second, a simple way to create scheduled, structured touchpoints with your direct reports is through a weekly one-on-one meeting. Make it a 30-minute meeting at the same day and time every week for both of you to review your priorities, updates, and friction points. You can even use the last 10-minutes as an opportunity for developmentally focused conversation like talking about career progression, coaching through a goal or needed improvement, or giving feedback. But what this weekly one-on-one does is consolidate all the unplanned and “urgent” touchpoints that would normally occur during the week into one scheduled meeting a week. So, instead of your direct report coming to your office one afternoon with a problem they need help with on a project, they elect to save that discussion for the one-on-one. Same for you going to bother them during the week for updates. This gives time, space, and capacity back to everyone throughout each week.
Ok, so number three is a process-based approach, which does require some time, deliberate effort, and investment. But we can empower and give autonomy by building prudent trust with those on our team. Creating conditions for healthy autonomy, that is effective for both you and them, requires trust. But we should not blindly give trust. That is risky for all parties. Instead, we build trust through a deliberate process of training our people, certifying them, empower them with responsibility, and then finally trust them. We must properly train and educate our people. We should not expect anything of them that we do not demonstrate for them. Next, we certify through some sort of validation process. This can be an assessment, a trial period, or something like that. But where training is you showing them the task, certification is them demonstrating mastery to you. Once certified, then you grant the responsibility and finally give them your trust. Like I said, this approach will take time and effort, but the investment will be well worth it on the backend for all the reasons that we discussed earlier – ownership, more developed and capable people, and collective improved capacity across the team. This process is pretty universal and can really fit with in any kind of industry and team. Consider brainstorming a trust-building process for your organization with your people as next leader or professional development session.
The fourth approach to building autonomy is being as intentional in granting authority as you are responsibility. It’s pretty easy to assign a project to someone telling them they are responsible for X, Y, and Z and then holding them accountable to those expectations. It’s also easy to overlook the need to grant them new or elevated authority in order to successfully carry out that responsibility. What do you need to give them to enable healthy, sustainable autonomy? Do they need an enhanced position, title, decision-making ability, or even just public support from the boss? When granting responsibility, ensure we think through what authority is required as well, and give it.
I hope that this episode captured autonomy in a simple and achievable way. We can action these approaches and institute these different components of autonomy in how we lead. But I know simple does not mean easy. Leaders do inherit risk when granting autonomy. But the benefits that we and our teams can reap through this process are absolutely worth it. We unleash our team’s and leaders’ capacity, we make work a more productive and enjoyable place, and we help people find meaning in their work. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a way better way to work than ultimately keeping all the responsibility and authority myself.
Now, next episode we are going to wrap up this short series on motivation by introducing a simple tool that we can use to assess the state of our peoples’ motivation, which then helps us start figuring out how we should adjust our leadership or the environment to improve conditions for increased intrinsic motivation. So, I hope you join us for that next episode.
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That’s it for this week, friends. I’m Josh and, again, thanks for joining us. Until next time, take care and lead well.