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Autonomy – Increasing Employee Engagement By Handing Over Control (Part 2)

Teamwork
Productivity
By ClockShark | Read time: 11 minutes

In Part 1 of this series, we talked about why you need to craft the roles in your organization in a way that allows employees to engage fully with the work – to find meaning in their position.

No matter what kind of job we’re talking about, you need to offer these three things to facilitate full engagement:

This week, we’re going to be talking about autonomy, and why it’s crucial for making sure your employees are switched on and tuned in to the work at hand. If you’re still unclear as to why that’s important, feel free to check out the previous article in this four-part series.

First things first – we’ll discuss what exactly we mean when we say “autonomy”.

Autonomy – What is it?

Autonomy is a word we’ve often heard, but not always understood. Here’s the official dictionary definition, ripped straight from the all-knowing Google:

Simply put, it’s being in control of your own actions, not being subject to someone else’s whims. It’s freedom to act and behave in the manner you choose, not the manner forced upon you.

It’s the capacity to push yourself forward because it’s what you want, not what someone else wants.

That’s in broad terms, but it’s pretty clear how this translates over into the workplace.


An autonomous employee is one who can exercise a degree of control and personal choice in how their duties are performed. Absolute autonomy is almost never optimal (or even desirable), but some level of freedom is a good addition to practically any workplace.

Silicon Valley giant Netflix (with a market cap of ~$120 billion) famously allow their employees to take vacation whenever they like: as long as their managers know where they are and that they’re not shirking their duties, they’re free to take as much time as they like for R&R. Their seemingly lax approach to holidays, expense claims and working hours haven’t harmed their progress as a company whatsoever. Above all else, they’ve remained focused on improving their core offering. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if their employees work 10 minutes or 10 hours: unless they can innovate and stay ahead of competitors & broader market trends, they’re dead in the water.

Netflix: a household name that does things differently.

Autonomy doesn’t only come in the form of unlimited vacation time… and not every company survives and thrives based on the quality of their ideas like Netflix does. If you’re reading this, you’re probably working in a blue-collar industry: construction, plumbing, electrical work, etc. The room for process and product innovation is somewhat more limited than it is with a tech company. A bricklayer that tries to totally revamp their bricklaying process every six months is unlikely to be steadily employed

Therein lies the reason why autonomy is found lacking in most jobs. No matter what industry or task you think of, there’s a certain way of doing things. Over the course of many years, decades (and sometimes even centuries), people figured out that there were certain ways of laying pipe, stacking brick and wiring houses that worked more reliably than others. Sure, every now and then we take a significant leap forward (often driven by technological progress), but as a whole, the best way of doing nearly anything remains consistent from year to year.

When the best way of doing things is already known, there’s little reason to encourage your employees to experiment and find out what works best. You already know what works best. Why would you want them to waste their time (and crucially, your money) on needless experimentation?

However, what’s good for business isn’t always good for the soul.

Routine Work – Human-Robots and Meaningless Existence

In last week’s article, we looked at the story of James, the 22-year old McDonald’s employee with a deep love for basketball. Tired of his mundane existence, he jumped ship at the first opportunity and took a position helping his local college team with their social media presence. However, the job wasn’t everything he had dreamed it would be. The meaningful work he had fantasized about never materialized, and soon enough, he quit and was right back where he started: flipping burgers for $10/hr, with no clear way out.

A business such as McDonald’s has enjoyed massive commercial success for one reason: consistency of delivery. Ray Kroc saw that the McDonald brothers had an amazingly high-quality, rapid service in their original hamburger restaurant, but the crucial point was this:

Their business systems allowed them to deliver a consistent experience to their customers every time.

This has since been replicated in thousands of franchise locations across the world. Anywhere you see those famous golden arches, you know what you’re in for: an okay burger at an okay price.

Mass produced, widely consumed: a standardized product of business systemization

 

An effectively franchised business like McDonald’s runs like clockwork: the employees know exactly what to do in every situation. They know how long to fry their burgers, they know how long to cook their fries, and they even know how often they need to clear tables after customers have finished eating.

In this kind of business, the opportunity for innovation and process experimentation is limited. The employees are badly-paid, low-skilled, and largely disinterested in the work at hand, and the work offers no opportunity to exercise autonomy. People are nothing more than robots working on an assembly line. Operating within the bounds of their strictly defined roles, they fail to engage meaningfully with a significant part of their day. Life gets greyer, everything gets a little harder, and the employee-robot either learns to live at this new, lower level or does something to reverse the trend (they may find another job, take up a rewarding hobby, seek salvation at the bottom of a bottle… or anything in between).

It’s unlikely that you’d consider your business to be anything like McDonald’s… but there are lessons to be learned here.

Sure, you probably don’t rule over your underlings with an iron fist, demanding that they execute every swing of the hammer precisely the same as the first, but you certainly expect that things will be done in a particular way. James doesn’t flip burgers with his bare hands, bricklayers don’t build in columns instead of rows, and accountants don’t shun calculators in favor of doing stuff in their head. Systemization is what enables you (the business owner) to step back and focus on big-picture issues, rather than being stuck monitoring every area of the business to ensure your standards are being met.

The work your firm is doing is almost definitely more engaging than being in a fast-food restaurant, but it still may not be enough. You need to make an effort to structure the roles in your business to allow for a little autonomy, for some “creative expression” in how the work is done. In the next section, we’re going to talk about how you can do this without causing more problems than it’s worth.

Allowing Autonomy Without Giving Up Control

Autonomy without control: Sure, he’s taking himself for a walk, but he’s still wearing the leash.

Your business has more in common with Netflix than what you may think. Although you do very different things in very different industries, one common thread binds you:

The outcome matters far more than the process.

Of course, we know that process matters when it comes to construction or another manual labor-type job. It’s not enough to simply wire up a house, install a boiler or lay a foundation. If Netflix is a little sloppy in their delivery, the worst case scenario is that their customers’ billing information is leaked. An undesirable outcome, for sure… but if the firm who built their offices did a bad job, it could potentially lead to the death of dozens (or even hundreds) of people.

However, in both cases, the end result is what matters most. Netflix has to deliver their core offering to customers (streaming video content)  and protect their data. A construction firm has to ensure their projects are as safe and secure as they were contracted to be. The processes employed are the roadmap for guaranteeing these safety requirements are met, but the outcome matters far more than the checklist.

Not all people function the same. Some will respond well to close supervision, while others will hate it. It’s simply a matter of knowing what kind of people you’re dealing with.

Firstly – everyone needs to understand why it’s important to meet the standards you set out. The example above outlines the potential dangers of cutting corners when it comes to construction, but disasters can happen any time people start to slack off. Most people will understand why it’s important that they’re careful… but it never hurts to reinforce this point.

As long as your employees understand what acceptable performance looks like, you can allow them a little more autonomy in their work. You don’t need to check up on them constantly while a particular task is progressing: in many cases, you can simply inspect their work upon completion (“work” being some discrete task e.g. wiring a particular room, finalizing a set of accounts, etc.) and determine if it’s satisfactory. Your employees should be free to ask someone for help if they run into issues, but allow them (when safe to do so) to solve problems on their own, without having someone else jump in and take over. Doing so will enable them to choose their own approach to a particular situation – they can tackle it alone, or seek help from someone else.

Overseers/supervisors can be as hands-on or as distant as required, depending on the temperament of the individuals they manage. Some employees prefer to be assured that their work is acceptable, while others (perhaps the more experienced) don’t need someone else to tell them that what they’ve done is okay. For the latter, it’s probably better to avoid continuous quality checking. As long as they’re aware of what constitutes a good performance, you can allow them the freedom to work (and of course, gently check-up at regular intervals).

As long as is doesn’t go this far, it’ll probably be alright.

It can help to allow your employees a little freedom in determining the order they do their work in. If they know that their job for the day is to work on building a particular room, it doesn’t really matter which wall they start with – in fact, allowing them to choose for themselves is a step towards allowing them more autonomy in their role.

Of course, this has limits: you couldn’t have one crew knocking holes in the walls while a group next door was trying to finish off some intricate electrical work. But even this simple scenario affords you a chance to encourage greater levels of self-determination in your employees. Teams whose work puts them on a collision course with one another can coordinate and figure out how they can attend to their duties without impeding someone else’s. Having a supervisor step in and settle things is faster, but letting your employees figure out the best way forward themselves is the more rewarding decision in the long-term.

Now, you know your own firm and your own people best. Adjust this advice as needed to suit your situation.

For white-collar positions in your firm, it can make sense to offer flexible working hours, allowing people to have some control over their schedule. This freedom will be contingent on getting their work done, of course… but it can a valuable tool in your motivational toolbox. For instance, a father-of-two might work hard until late Tuesday evening so he can take some time off the next day to attend his daughter’s soccer game. Family and leisure time is important to nearly everyone. Offering your employees this sort of freedom will go a long way towards both attracting higher-quality workers and increasing engagement among your existing employees.

This kind of arrangement is less suitable for blue-collar work, as such jobs are usually priced based on the length of time they take. While you could motivate employees to work harder by telling them they can leave early if get certain tasks done, this probably wouldn’t look great to your clients – they would expect a lower price as a result.

Once again, you know your business better than anyone, so take this advice and adapt it to your particular situation.

Conclusion

Autonomy matters. An employee that has no control over what they do, how they do it when they do it, or why they do it is no better than a mindless robot, constructed for the sole purpose of following orders with no personal input. It’s foolish to think that anyone could be motivated to work properly in that kind of situation.

While the work your business does is certainly not brainless, there’s a good possibility that you could offer your employees more autonomy without compromising results. If you can, you should – it directly contributes to increasing their engagement, which will benefit your firm in a number of ways

This is not an all-or-nothing proposition. You don’t have to immediately take drastic steps towards giving your employees total control over their workday, firing overseers and letting them roam free on the job site. You can ease into this.

Start by giving your employees just a little freedom – maybe they can choose which work tasks to focus on first, or take their lunch break any time of the day they want (as long as they’re progressing according to schedule). You’ll quickly see that some will flounder in the face of uncertainty, preferring to do things “by the book”, or to imitate whatever other people are doing. Others, however, will rise to the occasion: they’ll exercise their freedom of choice and discern their own way forward, becoming more engaged with the process as a result.

In practice, you’ll probably find that the majority of your employees will benefit from having more autonomy in their roles. For those that don’t? They’ll likely follow whatever establishes itself as standard practice in your firm, so there’s nothing to worry about.

As we discussed earlier in the article, you’ll often find that more experienced employees tend to enjoy (and benefit) more from greater levels of autonomy in their work. This is supported both by simple anecdotal evidence, and the four-level model outlined in our “Training Up The Pyramid” article.

Inexperienced workers haven’t developed the judgement or practical expertise required to do the job effectively. In these situations, having standard procedures in place for them to follow makes sense: they can “go through the motions” until they begin to understand why things are done a particular way, then make adjustments as needed. Their progression from substandard performance to deep understanding is augmented by greater levels of autonomy as they grow. A more experienced employee needs and deserves more freedom to do things their way – being forced to stick to a strict process designed to onboard newcomers is unlikely to do much more than breed resentment towards the work.

Remember, it’s not critical that all your employees do things differently to one another. This is unlikely – the “best” methods will ultimately win out over time, without outside interference.

No, what’s important is that they have the opportunity to choose between the different methods. Even if Option A is the choice of 99% of your workforce, these employees almost certainly appreciate having the freedom to select Option B if they desire to. This holds true even when Option A is clearly superior to B: in this case, the employee has a chance to exercise their professional judgement and select the better of the two, thereby reinforcing their capabilities.

That just about covers everything relevant to the topic of autonomy. In the coming articles, we’ll discuss the other two components of the engagement equation (mastery and purpose), and how you can tie them all together to increase employee engagement drastically in your firm.

 

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