You want to stay on track? Create autonomous teams

5 Tactics to develop role autonomy and engage employees in change

If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that organizations must be agile. Rapid change is sometimes necessary. It’s likely to continue to be so on an even greater scale in the future. This brings us to managing change.

A statistic that is often quoted is that 70% of organizational change projects fail. To improve success of change management projects, it is essential for employees to be engaged in the change. Role autonomy is key to this. Why? Because autonomy empowers people in self-determination and creation – and people tend not to destroy what they create.

What is autonomy anyway?

Autonomy in the workplace can be defined in many ways. However, it boils down to empowering employees to shape their working environment and their working practices in ways that most suit them.

Of all common human traits, perhaps the one that compels us to find the easiest solution – ways to work smarter rather than harder – is the strongest. It drives invention and innovation. This thirst for creating easier lives has given us the desire to create everything we take for granted today, from the wheel to the world wide web.

Role autonomy allows people to thrive

The days of controlling, carrot-and-stick leadership are long gone. If you want your team to change, leaders must guide and inspire. Give them the tools to do their job, and allow them to design how they do it. Explain the results you need, give them guidance, and then allow them to finesse how they work. Contrary to how some managers think, your people want to do the best work they can – and they probably know more about the work they do than their managers.

As Jack Welch (who as CEO of General Electric during the last two decades of the 20th century steered it through a period of colossal change) advised, “Place the best people for the best opportunities and to properly distribute the monies to the right places. That’s all. Communicate your ideas, distribute the resources and get out of the way.

In short, providing autonomy to people in the workplace provides the environment and incentive in which they will thrive. This translates into good news for the organization, especially in times of change. You give people the power to become involved in the change. This gives them the power to create the change. This level of engagement is key in strategies for overcoming resistance to change.

Autonomy is a tool of teamwork

Providing autonomy within roles is not giving a carte blanche to individuals to do as they please. They must still be guided in what they do. The change process will have defined milestones and goals, and expected outcomes. Providing autonomy allows people to change lanes while staying on the same course.

Autonomy at work should be used as a tool to encourage collaboration. It is not about working on your own. It’s about understanding your own strengths and weaknesses, identifying help needed, and using the strength of the team to produce meaningful results.

The benefits of autonomy in teams

People who are given the power of self-determination are generally happier, more highly motivated, and more loyal than those under authoritarian control. Autonomy creates the environment in which employee engagement flourishes. 

Happier, more motivated employees are less likely to leave and more likely to work toward collective goals. Other benefits include:

  • More motivation to learn and develop
  • Improved productivity
  • Greater affinity with organizational culture
  • Increased self-value
  • Greater collaboration
  • Improved creativity and innovation

Delivering the benefits of role autonomy and employee engagement

Autonomy in the workplace doesn’t just happen by setting out guidelines and saying, ‘get on with it’.

Autonomy is a cultural trait. It must be instilled by clear leadership, and inspired by people-centric management. Here are five tactics to encourage autonomy in your teams.

1.      Provide clear boundaries of autonomy

Enable employees to develop their decision-making skills by providing clear boundaries of autonomy in which they can operate. For example, in a call center you may give customer service agents the autonomy to make decisions to a value of, say, $100 without the need to refer to a manager.

2.      Support your people in their efforts

Don’t leave your people without guidance. Support them as they transition into autonomous mode. Ensure that autonomy is provided within process and procedural limitations, and back these up with structured handbooks, manuals, and cooperative supervision.

3.      Develop outcome-oriented not task-based targets

To empower people to develop work processes and procedures that deliver improved results and higher productivity, move away from task-based targets. Instead, help people to focus on outcomes. You want 1,000 widgets made each hour? Ask your operatives how they could deliver this.

4.      Understand that mistakes will happen – and learn from them

To err is human. People will make mistakes. It is not the mistake that defines us, it is how we react to it. Develop a culture in which informed risk-taking is acceptable, and in which mistakes and what is learned from them are shared.

5.      Trust your people

We may have saved the most important tactic until last. Autonomy can only exist in an environment in which people are trusted. Without trust, managers will feel the need to control. Without trust, employees will not act autonomously.

At the core of trust is how you communicate – and this includes building trust in globally remote teams. Learn to listen to your employees and act on the feedback you receive. They are the ones who are most affected by change. Autonomous employees will help you affect successful change, because they are the ones who will be responsible for determining their own success.

To learn more about creating a change-ready organization, connect with Forward Focus today.

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