Autonomy Is the Biggest Reward Your Team Can Get
People want choices
“The worst leader is he who people despise. A good leader is she who people worship. A great leader is one who makes people say: ‘we ourselves did it.’” — Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Micromanagement is a pervasive behavior — research shows that 79 percent of people had been victims of it. However, it’s not the need for control that drives this behavior, but the need for survival.
Times have changed — what people perceived as being micromanaged has changed too.
Almost half of executives acknowledge having a strong desire for power — they like to be seen as experts and authority figures. This doesn’t mean that they are observing and controlling everything their subordinates do.
We live in a more connected and empowered society — employees want to behave more autonomously. That’s creating an existential crisis among ‘power-driven’ executives and organizations — they believe their expertise and authority is no longer needed.
That’s why they delegate tasks, but don’t necessarily authority. Teams ‘own’ projects but, in the end, they have to wait for the ‘boss’ to make the call. People spend more time ‘waiting’ than moving the project forward — they not only lose the excitement; their commitment to the project decreases too.
Most companies expect people to do things in a specific way — that’s another symptom why employees feel micromanaged. The how seems to matter most than what needs to be achieved.
Micromanaging is not scalable — if organizations want to grow and become more agile, they’d better let their employees ‘take the reins.’
The Key to Happiness at Work (It’s Not Money)
“Autonomy is the antithesis of micromanagement.” Joan F. Cheverie
Autonomy is people’s desire to have choices — the feeling that they manage their own actions.
That’s why the key to happiness at work isn’t money, but autonomy. There are many ways in which managing their own destiny makes employees happier, as this Quartz article explains. But there’s little that money can do to offset feeling oppressed at a job.
How managers introduce a challenge or kick-off a new project can encourage the feeling of autonomy or hinder it — perception matters as much as reality.
Autonomy is having choices — not just the ability to choose, but also to create the options.
Motivation and innovation come hand in hand. Great leaders understand the correlation — they encourage a space where people can speak up, challenge the status quo, and bring new ideas to the party.
“People who feel betrayed or unrecognized at work limit their engagement and commitment.” says Dr. David Rock, President of the NeuroLeadership Institute, “When people feel undervalued, they become purely transactional employees — they are reluctant to give more of themselves to the company.”
The benefits of autonomy:
- People feel more valued: having a saying into how things are done creates a sense of ownership — employees are committed, not just being transactional.
- It alleviates negative emotions: Neuroscientist Steven Maier, from Colorado University, found out that it’s easier to manage our emotions when we are in control — stressors we can’t control are far more damaging than stressors we feel we have some control over.
- Makes the job more attractive: People are two and a half times more likely to take a job that gives them more autonomy than one that provides more influence, as New York Magazine’s Melissa Dahl reports.
- It drives loyalty: motivation expands when people feel in control as described by Charles Duhigg in his book My War of the Highway.
- It increases productivity: studies have shown that autonomy makes people more efficiently, focused, and faster.
Autonomy drives ownership and engagement. People don’t thrive in transactional relationships — getting a salary increase in a job one doesn’t like, spirals frustration and guilt.
Autonomy Drives Accountability (And vice versa)
The opposite of control is not ‘total independence.’
Kids are dependent; teenagers want full independence — the balance lies in being interdependent. Grown-ups value being autonomous, but also to leverage other people.
Autonomy is not total independence — it’s a collective behavior to increase team performance.
Not understanding that critical distinction is what makes managers afraid of delegating authority — they associate ‘freedom’ with lower performance and accountability. Though it sounds counterintuitive, autonomy creates a definite boost in both — true freedom comes with responsibility.
The most challenging part is reframing the reward system — we need to move from a ‘stick and carrots’ approach to ‘Intrinsic Motivation,’ as Daniel Pink describes in his book Drive. He proposes focusing on three elements: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.
As the author explains, our brains are wired to behave autonomously and be self-directed. We don’t want others to tell us how to do things; we want to feel in control.
This autonomy is necessary over tasks (what we do), time (when we do it), the team (who we do it with), and the technique (how we do it). Spotify is organized in small cross-functional teams known as ‘Squads’ — each has the autonomy to decide what to build, how to build it, and how to work together while building it.
Don’t see autonomy and accountability as two different forces that need to be balanced. Promoting autonomy encourages people to become self-motivated — it creates a virtuous cycle.
Autonomy is not about everyone doing what they want, but that anyone can shape how the team operates.
Belonging Drives Accountability
“Great leaders don’t want the attention, but they use it. They use it to unite the tribe and to reinforce its sense of purpose.” — Seth Godin
We are social animals — our culture is shaped by the groups we belong to.
Seth Godin said: “Human beings can’t help it: we need to belong.” In his book Tribe, he explains people gather together around a shared interest and way to communicate.
A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. Great teams are not just people that work together — they behave like a tribe.
People want to join a mission, not just to do a job, as I wrote here — being part of a tribe increases the chances of success.
When teams behave like a tribe, they become a tighter and fluid entity — they are great at recruiting and immersing newcomers; they are also good at rejecting those who would lower the bar.
People want connection and growth; that’s why they join a tribe — they become accountable to something bigger than themselves: their team.
Spotify’s Squads define their own missions, develop their own goals, and how they work — they are a tribe with end-to-end responsibilities.
As Godin writes: “A leader can help increase the effectiveness of the tribe and its members by transforming the shared interest into a passionate goal and desire for change; providing tools to allow members to tighten their communications; and leveraging the tribe to allow it to grow and gain new members.”
When a team becomes a tribe, the role of the leader doesn’t lose importance — it evolves into something more meaningful.
How to Get You Started
- Recognize that your job is to lead people, not to manage tasks. You must work through others to accomplish a mission.
- Start small. Promising full autonomy and then cut ‘freedom’ back not only backfires — it erodes trust and credibility. It’s always better to surprise than to overpromise.
- Set expectations up front. Be clear on what you want to achieve and on the rules of engagement. What’s the mission? How much accountability will the team have? Will they need to check-in with you at certain stages? If you have doubts or fears, share those with your teams too — change is navigating uncertainty. People expect leaders to be honest, not to be perfect.
- Be patient. It takes time for a team to turn into a high-performing tribe. People usually turn into a ‘dictator’ when they receive more power — through time; they’ll find balance. Be ready for some chaos at the beginning of the process.
- Reframe mistakes as learning moments. To experiment with ‘new ways of crossing the river,’ people must make mistakes — create a habit of turning errors into lessons. At WD-40, mistakes are called ‘learning moments’ — they can be positive or negative, but are never considered bad. They are openly and freely shared because mistakes come and go; learnings stay forever.
- Promote collective autonomy. Providing people with more freedom to speak and make choices doesn’t mean anyone will do what they want. It’s always about what’s better for the tribe, not for a particular individual.
- Focus on the mission. Leading change by delegating authority, involves specifying the desired outcome, putting a team in charge, and let them design the way to get there. Challenge your team to find a way to cross the river rather than asking them to build a bridge.
- Focus on accountabilities, not just goals. Autonomy and accountability come together. Expectations for each role must be clear, aligned with the distributed authority, and establishes what that role is meant to do. Holacracy, a self-management practice, accountabilities usually begin with an -ing verb to convey that it’s an ongoing activity (and not a one-time project or action). Check out this post on how to craft accountabilities.
- Level set expectations. Clarity is critical. ‘Educate’ your team on the power of autonomy and how you want to implement it in your organization. Most importantly, focus on the ‘why’ — what are you trying to achieve.
- Simplify your rules. Most organizations build their policies with a ‘micromanagement mindset.’ Review your rules. Is everything forbidden unless it is permitted? Or is it everything allowed unless it’s forbidden? General Motors’ CEO narrowed down its dress code policy to just two words: ‘dress accordingly.’
- Include your team along the way. Promoting autonomy with a top-bottom approach would be ironic. Your team should be involved from the beginning, especially when setting up expectations, what’s the problem to be fixed, and the ideal outcome. Early involvement, not only minimizes resistance and noise in the line; it promotes ownership.
Autonomy is more rewarding than money — it encourages people to have a saying and deciding how they work. People want to join a mission and to be part of a tribe, not to be told how to work.
Letting go of power makes many leaders nervous. However, micromanagement is hindering your organization’s potential — micromanagement cannot be scaled, autonomy does.
People want to be the source of their own action. The same applies to implement autonomy at your company — there’s no universal solution; every organization is different.
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