5 Actions to Get You More Autonomy at Work

Career Advice

Autonomy, Empowerment, Master of Your Fate.  Whatever you want to call it, most of us want more of it at work. In fact, some people will trade autonomy for supervisory roles when given the choice between the two. In recent articles we discussed the positive outcomes of autonomy, and also how leaders can effectively empower their people.

Now we turn inward, toward what we as employees and team members want. I offer the following as an employee who has learned and employed a variety of approaches to achieve more autonomy, as well as a leader who has empowered her people at different levels – with both successful and unsuccessful outcomes. If you’d like to be more empowered in your current job, here are some actions to get you there.

1. Self-Assess

Do you like to be given a job with just a few instructions and then be allowed to go do it? Are you comfortable working toward goals with a flexible road map that you might even have to design? Can you manage your time well and meet deadlines with little or no guidance from your boss? Yes? Then you’re likely ready for more autonomy. Conversely, do you work best within a firm structure and timeline, with expectations that are clearly and regularly articulated by your boss? Do you get anxious or irritated in ambiguous or changing conditions, or when the boundaries of your job description occasionally blur? If this sounds more like you, consider what autonomy means to you and discuss it with your boss. You two might need to negotiate definitions and roles before you’re both comfortable with an increase in your autonomy.

2. Check Your Expectations

Empowerment means working in conditions where you have maximum freedom to manage your projects, including timelines, stakeholder relationships, and other critical factors that move your projects forward. It doesn’t mean you never have to answer to a superior or run larger-scope decisions past your boss or other colleagues. And autonomy doesn’t necessarily translate to more flexible work schedules. Many empowered employees work in positions where their duty day and presence in the office is extremely structured, but they enjoy a vast amount of work-related autonomy that results in far more job satisfaction than any telework schedule could match.

3. Be 100% Reliable

A crucial underpinning of autonomy is trust. You must be consistently handling the business that already resides in your portfolio before you look for more autonomy. Your boss is also more likely to consider giving you more freedom when she believes you’re aiming for excellence every day, in every effort. Flex your autonomy in your current portfolio to its fullest boundaries. Look for efficiencies and when you find them, don’t wait for permission to implement them. Bring to your boss only the issues that will affect overall policy or process changes that affect stakeholders external to her group. Perhaps most important, know the difference between being empowered and going rogue. Stay in lock-step with your leadership’s priorities, as well as the pulse of the organization regarding culture and the capacity to embrace change. Then ensure all your actions are informed by – and can be linked back to – these important elements.

4. Discover Opportunities

You don’t always have to ask for autonomy to acquire it. Find opportunities that skirt the edges of your sphere of influence that could improve the organization. If they already have a champion, offer to collaborate. If no advocate emerges and you can even loosely connect it with your sphere, try moving it forward in small increments and let your boss know that you’ve done so. If she’s comfortable with your action, take your initiative to the next level or in a different area, keeping her informed along the way. Offer to take simple tasks that free her or others up for handling more strategic issues. Pace your actions with cues from her as she releases tasks or projects to you, and know when you’ve reached the outer limits of her comfort level. Not every leader has experiences that make them ready or willing to empower- you might need to try different approaches until you find one that resonates with her.

5. Proactively Communicate

Proactive and consistent dialogue is the key to maintaining your autonomy. Empowered employees understand the value of well-placed and regular updates to their leadership; an absence of updates can sometimes create uncertainty – or even a decrease in trust and confidence. A quick note to your boss to let her know things are on track will put her mind at ease even when she’s not overseeing your daily /weekly work. Similarly, an affirmation that you’re tracking her shift in priorities, and will adjust your project accordingly, will ensure your autonomy continues even when goals and priorities shift beyond your scope of activity. Just ensure that you’re not inundating her with the minutiae of your daily or weekly activity. Keep the information at the strategic level and focus on issues she might be asked about by her peers or leadership regarding your projects.

While the above actions might work individually, your best shot at achieving the autonomy you want is to use them in concert. Good luck!

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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