How to encourage autonomy in your workforce

A couple of months ago, I wrote about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and how the former tends to be a better, longer-lasting driver for employee engagement than the old carrot-and-stick approach of the latter.

By: James Blair on

You can read that article here. One significant intrinsic motivator is autonomy. It’s closely linked with feeling valued and trusted, and it ties in with understanding how our work contributes to the bigger picture of our employer’s success.

Who enjoys being micro-managed? No, nor me. It’s not good for the soul, is it? Research shows that employees who are entrusted to make their own choices about how they go about their responsibilities are almost always happier, more committed, and more productive than those who are not. Because autonomy feeds our intrinsic motivation, it is important to our engagement levels with our work and our employers.

There are also, of course, benefits of an autonomous workforce to employers. They’re far easier and less time-consuming to manage, and they invariably generate better results.

This is not to say that every employee wants or feels comfortable with the same degree of autonomy, and the amount of autonomy that we want can vary over time, from day to day or project to project. But, looking at the culture of your business, does it allow, facilitate, and encourage autonomy? Or is it more prone to command and control?

If we know that autonomy can benefit our people’s wellbeing, engagement, and productivity, how can we go about encouraging it within our organisations?

Vision and Purpose matter

We can’t expect our people to make fully informed decisions without clear direction and an understanding of how their work fits into the bigger picture. Without this, they may well head off in the wrong direction, or in different directions to each other. This just wastes time and creates the need for management intervention. It can also cause unnecessary conflict.

Communicating your strategy, vision and purpose to all of your staff, regardless of their position or level of autonomy, is fundamental.

Trust is key

When delegating tasks, a decent degree of trust should be delegated with them. That may bring with it a degree of risk, depending on the end-user’s skills, knowledge and ability.

Where that risk is significant, it’s advisable to start small and gradually increase the employee’s responsibilities and freedoms. Consult colleagues about a project and encourage collaboration from the very beginning to nurture trust and confidence for all parties.

Always be clear about what is in their scope of responsibility and what needs sign off from above, so that only those latter details need to be requested or escalated. (This may, for example, include things such as additional costs, or external support or input.) That will encourage autonomy by demonstrating trust and faith in their judgments.

Give them the tools & resources they need

This may seem a little obvious, but don’t just think of the tangible tools and resources such as hardware and software. Also consider knowledge, training, and access to information, platforms, and additional talent.

Supporting the professional development of our people is central to their wellbeing and engagement, and, of course, their comfort with autonomy. Fully bespoke those development plans to plug gaps in knowledge and skills, and everyone benefits.

Let them learn from mistakes

Being overly critical of mistakes will destroy confidence and initiative. Eventually, this will kill engagement and autonomy. A sense of psychological safety is crucial if employees are to willingly share their ideas, suggestions and feedback.

Allowing our people to adapt their approach when they hit a brick wall or make a mistake (rather than just pointing out an error and telling them exactly how to correct it) will give them an increased sense of control and help them to grow. This will ultimately benefit their performance and boost their own problem-solving skills.

This is especially important for our Gen Z colleagues who have a healthy view of mistakes. They see them not as something to fear or be ashamed of, but as a way to learn.

Communicate constantly

Ensure you hold regular and meaningful meetings to monitor and review progress against goals. As well as checking progress, these should identify when and where people need support or additional resource and offer all parties the chance to raise concerns and share successes.

Feedback, recognition and appreciation are all crucial for building a culture of autonomy and teams that are content and confident, and willing and able to take on additional responsibilities.

Autonomy in the workforce won’t come quickly if it isn’t already there. But it as journey worth taking, and one which will benefit everyone in the long run.