People begin striving and yearning for autonomy early in life–to have the ability to act independently from someone else’s control. In many ways, today’s work environment is the opposite of autonomous because people are paid to contractually do a prescribed job in a prescribed way. Under the best circumstances, that job is in alignment with the employee’s purpose, but there are no guarantees.
The best companies are the ones that take this approach: “We hire smart people, let them know where we’re going as a business, get them to care deeply about the purpose of our business, provide them with a clearly defined playing field, and then let them make decisions as much as they can to accomplish the goals that have been set.” In this regard, autonomy is not only something that employees want, but also something that really benefits the company.
In today’s organizational setting, people want the ability to freely pursue and excel at the job they have been hired to do. The most important things employees are looking for now are the resources, tools, and means to work independently and to show their managers how competent they are.
Requires a leap of logic
This takes a bit of a leap of logic on the part of managers. The traditional idea of management is that managers are responsible for controlling the efforts and compliance of the people working for them. The irony of that notion is that the managers who put the idea of compliance aside are the ones who get more of the behaviors they are looking for.
Share what to do, with clear guidelines
A big part of being a manager is saying, “I’ve done what I can do, and now I need to turn it over to people so they can be accountable and responsible for their own performance.” The reality is that managers can’t watch their people all the time, so at some point their people are going to have to act on their manager’s behalf, consistent with the way that their manager wants them to act. This requires the manager to provide a clear picture of the desired outcome.
In my own early work experience as a dishwasher, I remember my manager complaining to me because some of the plates and pots weren’t clean. He told me that I wasn’t washing the dishes. I replied, “I have washed every single dish,” which was true–I just hadn’t washed them to the standard the manager was looking for. But instead of getting into a battle around that, he said, “Okay, let me put it this way. I didn’t hire you to wash the dishes. What I hired you to do was to actually provide clean flatware, dishes, and pots to the cooks, waiters, and busboys. Your job is not to wash the dishes, but instead to provide clean equipment and tools to the people who will be serving our guests.” He redefined my job for me and gave me a clear picture of what he wanted.
In the service industry, that’s one of the things we learn early: As a manager, service is not something that you mandate. You set broad parameters and limits and then turn the employees loose to do everything they can, within their ability and judgment, to do the right thing in serving customers.
If you want to provide service the way they do at the Ritz-Carlton, you hire friendly people, teach them how to do their job, and then let them run with the ball. If you want to have a different airline experience like they do at Southwest, you hire friendly people, train them, and turn them loose. One of our new clients is Mr. Rooter–a plumbing franchise. They hire really friendly people and then teach them the specifics of doing the job. The plumbing is important of course, but cleanliness, responsiveness, respect, integrity, and customer focus are much more important in terms of creating a lasting, positive experience for customers than just turning a wrench the right way.
Autonomy is a gradual process
Autonomy, when correctly implemented, is a gradual and appropriate empowering and loosening of the reins on people to enable them to take responsibility for what they are doing. For example, if you are a parent, you know that sooner or later your children are going to be out in the world, living and making decisions outside of your expressed views. If parents don’t let their kids do anything independently and develop their own skills before they turn 18 and leave for college, then they’re asking for trouble. Parents, as well as managers, need to slowly loosen the leash and give more autonomy over time. Otherwise they’re going to see some real disasters because they haven’t built up a person’s capacity to be autonomous.
Employees aren’t children, of course, but this example provides some context that all of us can relate to.
There is a big difference between providing autonomy and abdicating management responsibility. If managers just let people loose without skills, abilities, and boundaries, then they are abdicating responsibility and setting people up to fail. Autonomy needs to be a slow and steady process. Your goal as a manager is to help people learn their job inside and out through thorough training, and then, as they demonstrate competency, give them the autonomy to be flexible. Autonomy without competence is really risky and dangerous, and lack of autonomy when someone is competent can be insulting and demotivating.
Requires a leap of faith
The challenge for a manager, then, is to identify the point at which to turn the job over to the employee. This is the leap of faith when supervisors move from a coaching role to a more consultative role with their people. Parents, again, are familiar with this when they watch their kids drive away to college–they take a big gulp and hope that they’ve prepared their kids to take care of themselves when they get to the campus.
In my own case, I have been known to give people responsibility too soon–sending sending them out before they really have all the competence and skills necessary. Other people I know have a tendency to hang on too long–then they miss the opportunity to give people a chance to really spread their wings and succeed or fail on their own merit. When managers hang on too long, they can create either a dependence or a sense of frustration, anger, and resentment in employees because the employees feel they are being micromanaged. As a manager, you want to get it right as often as you can, but be aware of the possibility that you may be either too slow or too fast in turning people loose.
In matters that aren’t life and death I would recommend a bias toward turning people loose early. In more critical circumstances you may have to hang on for a more extended period of time, but eventually you still need to let them go off on their own.
Expand your view
People can be, and want to be, responsible for their work and proud of it. They want to be magnificent. As a manager, help your people accomplish this by training them right and then letting them loose on the work. If you believe the only way to hold people accountable is to supervise them and watch over their shoulders, that view is too limiting. A better way to lead people to desired behavior is to make them responsible for their own results.
Scott Blanchard is the Executive Vice President of Client Solutions of The Ken Blanchard Companies and co-author of Leading at a Higher Level. Ken Blanchard is the best-selling co-author of The One Minute Manager and 50 other books on leadership and creating great organizations. You can follow Ken Blanchard on Twitter @KenBlanchard or The Ken Blanchard Companies @LeaderChat and also via the HowWeLead and LeaderChat blogs.