What happens when you give people autonomy?

Dan Pink’s best-selling book ‘Drive : The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’, talks about the importance of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose (for a quick recap, check out the 11-minute RSA animate here).

Over several years of working with leaders and managers, it’s been my observation that giving people autonomy can be much easier to talk about than it is to do. Here’s a sample of the reservations managers typically express about giving autonomy:

  • But what if they stuff it up?
  • I’m not sure I can trust them to get it done on time.
  • Aren’t we supposed to have quality control?
  • How will I know they’re doing it right?
  • Won’t our clients/customers object?

All of which are understandable anxieties. Yet we know that the opposite of being given autonomy is when we’re working for a control freak, the dreaded micro-manager who is so controlling we wonder why they don’t just do the job themselves (they’d probably rather, but may have been told to start delegating). We also know that when we’re given autonomy to get a job done, we feel positive and trusted… provided some essential elements are in place.

Here’s what I think you need in place to start giving autonomy:

  • Hire right. Not everyone can handle a high degree of autonomy or deliver well if they get it. Clarify what’s needed and recruit carefully.
  • Be really clear about how each person’s role fits into the organisation’s and team’s purpose. Why does this task exist? What purpose does it serve? How does it fit into the bigger picture?
  • Ensure people have the right tools and skills to do the job. One of Pink’s other three key drivers, Mastery, is all about consciously developing and improving.
  • Delegate tasks and the responsibility for getting them done. Be prepared for someone to do the job differently to you, so long as they hit the agreed end results.
  • Have ground rules about when you will and won’t be involved. Stick to them and reinforce them, for example, if someone’s coming to you every 10 minutes with questions.
  • Have mutual accountability; give and get feedback to learn from experience.

Still not sure? BBC’s ‘The Bottom Line’ has some stunning examples in this podcast, including from a leader who gives ex-offenders autonomy.

Dawn is the author of ‘How to be Zoomly at work’, available on Amazon.

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