Autonomy:  5 Ways Leaders Can Effectively Empower Employees and Teams

Workplace

We recently discussed the many reasons why Autonomy is the Secret to Workplace Bliss, Leaders in diverse sectors claim that autonomous employees feel more valued, are more agile at solving problems, and are more invested in their work. Some academics claim that autonomy might be the most single influential factor in improving employee engagement.

If you’re a leader looking to enhance employee morale, reduce time spent on minutiae in your oversight roles, and improve innovation in real ways that advance your mission goals, then giving your employees more autonomy could be the answer. Here are some ways to do it:

1. Tailor How You Empower

Autonomy can enhance performance in strong self-starters, but not all who you empower will produce outcomes that are good for the organization. Individuals who can work in ambiguous environments, set and manage timelines are more likely to optimize their autonomy than those who work better with frequent guidance and structured parameters.  Similarly, an employee who works in isolation or makes rogue decisions isn’t ready for more empowerment until the problem behaviors are addressed.

High performing and cohesive teams can usually be given more autonomy with positive outcomes, but increased autonomy won’t fix teams who are struggling to gel and make progress toward their mission. In fact, the ambiguity that comes with empowerment might make these types of teams more dysfunctional.

2. Begin Modestly

Empowerment is much easier to give than to pull back. The key is to improve your employee’s perception of choice, while you maintain a reasonable level of oversight and accountability. Think about decisions that you can delegate or create new opportunities for employee decision-making. If the risk is still beyond your tolerance level, try asking your employees for their input before you make some decisions. Continue to create choices with progressively fewer boundaries that open the space of ownership. And don’t be vague with your language: communicate in clear terms that you would like their input on a decision, have full autonomy to manage a project, or somewhere in between.

3. Give Employees Control of Their Physical Environments

Although some people can work anywhere and produce the same level of performance, most will admit that spatial surroundings affect productivity, concentration, and creativity. Not everyone is an extrovert and thrives on constant dialogue – some might benefit from working remotely periodically to help them recharge and reset for the next day of high-speed interaction. Spatial configurations can also affect how teams form and sustain relationships and ultimately perform. Of course, it’s not always possible to reconfigure furniture or office space. But even a temporary shift in tables, open space, or cubicle walls to can influence the team’s approach – often shifting from the usual paradigms to innovative thinking about a problem.

4. Encourage Employees to Set Their Own Goals

While you will communicate what needs to be accomplished, empowered employees should determine how to get there. As architects of the project that includes milestones and interim updates to leaders or customers, autonomous employees and teams make decisions and coordinate actions within a broad sphere of influence. They recognize when potential actions could impact areas outside that respective sphere and consult you for guidance only when necessary. They have the authority to take risks because they know you understand that small failures or setbacks are not only expected, they can also propel an effort forward over time.

5. Shift to a Supportive and Flexible Role

As employees and teams take on more autonomy, you’ll discover more opportunities to let go. Allow your employees and teams to task you for resources, guidance, and other actions – and address their requests for help or information with the same priority as taskers you receive from higher leadership. Be ready to be more flexible. Respond to the new behaviors and ways of thinking your empowered employees or teams now demonstrate. Ultimately, you’ll find you have more time to focus on bigger management issues: strategy, the future of your operation…perhaps even recruiting more candidates who would excel in the new autonomous work environment you and your employees have created.

Melissa Jordan is an Executive Writer at a US Government agency. With more than 20 years in professional communication and over 16 years of experience working in cross-cultural environments, her most valuable lessons have been learned by trial and error.

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