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Employees want more freedom. Here’s how to give it without spoiling your team

Six key points that leaders need to consider when they are struggling with giving workers more autonomy.

Employees want more freedom. Here’s how to give it without spoiling your team
Source photo: Martin Barraud/Getty Images]

Out of all the things we have heard about the pandemic, one of the more obvious facts is that employees have, in general, appreciated the value of working with autonomy, freedom, and flexibility. This is arguably the main trigger underpinning the growing demand for hybrid work, and why some people are not just quitting their jobs, but even employment altogether, when they are not given freedom.

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However, decades of scientific research suggest that autonomy, much like anything else, is best in moderation. Sure, people do want freedom, not least because it signals trust, but they also need clear directions, feedback, and management. 

Consider that hands-off or laissez faire leaders (who are known mostly for their absence) generally fail to drive high-performance in their teams. Yet being a micromanager is almost as bad. The art of good management always called for a careful balancing act, addressing the natural tension between empowering and guiding people on the one hand, and setting them free to deliver on the other.

In that sense, not that much has changed with the current pandemic. If anything, this crisis provides a good opportunity to remind leaders of some basic scientific lessons for motivating employees, and unlocking their potential.

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Nothing will work unless you can measure output

Unless you can measure what people produce and deliver and the value they add, attempts to give people freedom will backfire. This is easier said than done. The more skilled and complex the job, the harder it is to evaluate what people contribute. Measuring performance is hardest when people are working on innovative projects requiring cutting-edge technical expertise. You usually can’t trust your instincts, you need a great deal of expertise yourself, and above all you need a framework and process, outlining clear deliverable, key performance indicators, and measurable results. Even then, it won’t be rocket science, but if you make the effort, over time, you will find ways to fine-tune this and find better ways of being wrong.

The alternative is a recipe for disaster: measuring input rather than output, reverting to a culture of presenteeism, or encouraging people to pretend to work rather than actually work, and spend more time performing an act rather than their jobs. So, the number one opportunity for any manager is to get better at measuring what employees actually produce.

Some structure is always needed

A simple rule you should remember is that most people need to be told what to do, even if they don’t want to be told how to do it. If you hire smart people who understand their job, your main goal is to give them direction, setting objectives and ensuring that they are aware of the what and why of their goals. Too many people are unclear about their goals, and even their roles. This problem is not fixed by bringing people back to the office, but it is easier to lose people—both emotionally and intellectually—if you lose touch with them, and if the hybrid working mode undermines your ability to provide them with structure. 

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Regular feedback is key

This may sound obvious, and yet meta-analytic studies show that 30% of feedback interventions fail to increase performance, and 30% actually lower it. Think about that: a boss that communicates something to employees that worsens their performance. Although great feedback is an art, there’s a robust science of feedback that should inform every manager’s intervention (Angela Lane and Dimitris Gorbatov have a book on this every manager should read). Frequent, specific, objective, actionable, balanced (not just positive!) feedback works wonders. It doesn’t matter whether you use email, in-person communication, or TikTok. Just get the message across, and make sure that it did come across. 

Creating psychological safety is critical

As my colleague Amy Edmondson has repeatedly shown through her research, few things are more critical for employee morale, development, and performance than to create a culture of psychological safety, one in which employees are not afraid to take risks, try things out, and learn. The ideal team is one in which every employee feels free to speak up, even it means questioning their boss, and challenging the status-quo.

There may be no better way to define freedom than it terms of psychological safety. However (and wherever) people work, it is essential that their voices are heard, and that they feel empowered to speak up, to disagree, and to ask difficult questions. This is probably a universal need, if not a right, every employee will want to have access to. Instilling a safe climate also means that you can implement rules, structure, process, and constraints to boost team performance, without sacrificing morale or productivity. In a way teams are very much like societies: The freest society is not one without rules or laws, but one in which rules and laws protect and empower people’s freedom.

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Monitor progress, learn to adjust and correct

Whatever you do, be ready to get it wrong, especially in the beginning. And even if you do things right, they can always get better, through trial and error, experimentation, and the ability to sincerely evaluate results, tweak, and change. All smart organizations, and all smart leaders, know what they don’t know. They approach changes with a healthy degree of skepticism, even if they believe in their ability to make things better. Managing people is hard, but it becomes easier if you are willing to learn from mistakes. And in any area of life, failing fast is the best way to succeed in the long run. 

One size does not fit all

A rule that should be part of any article, any framework, any philosophy. Even if you have a great model, you will realize that it is not equally applicable to all. Even before the rise of current diversity programs, great leadership was always inclusive, because it requires you to bring people together, and turn a group of individuals into a high-performing team. If everyone is the same, you can’t build a great team. And if everyone is different, as they are indeed, then you need to treat people in the way they need to be treated, each unique person in its own unique way. Fairness is not treating everyone the same, but as they deserve and prefer. You do not need to compromise equity and trust, on the contrary, it is the only way you can cement them. So, the correct—and complete—answer to the question: “How much freedom do your employees need?” is always “It depends who they are,” though you can assume the aforementioned rules will apply most of the time.

Assuming you address all these points, more freedom is generally better

Yep, this is fact. You don’t own your employees, and no matter how much they love their jobs, work is just a part of their lives. Managers who behave possessively towards their employees and teams will resemble a jealous spouse, or a possessive loved one. Forcing people to love you never works, and forcing them to love their job is even more ludicrous. 

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Do not assume that your skill as a leader is positively related to the degree of freedom you give to employees. Your opportunity here is to unleash their talent, unlock their potential, and make them better at what they do. In the wise words of Albert Camus: “Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better.”

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About the author

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the Chief Innovation Officer at ManpowerGroup, a professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University, cofounder of deepersignals.com, and an associate at Harvard’s Entrepreneurial Finance Lab

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