The Right Way to Give Employees More Autonomy

Whereas the micromanaging boss is usually the villain in water cooler stories, a company that gives employees the freedom to make decisions can be the star.

Research has shown independence to be among the things that workers value most in a job. According to one study, the average person is nearly two and a half times more likely to take a position that provides them with more autonomy over one offering more influence.

Empowering employees to follow their own judgment can also have a business upside. A customer service representative, for example, will often be more familiar with the needs of individual clients than their manager. Giving workers more latitude can enable them to act upon their knowledge in a way that benefits the company as a whole.

To realize the potential productivity gains, a business must create the conditions necessary for decisions to be brought independently from the management team. This is no small task.

Building the right culture

The term “easier said than done” fits just about any attempt to change how a company operates, but it’s particularly applicable to something as major as modifying core decision-making processes. Merely giving employees opportunities to take the initiative doesn’t guarantee that they’ll do so. Pairing those opportunities with concrete incentives may not always yield results, either.

To reach the desired affect, a business must first and foremost ensure that it has a conducive internal culture. That means an environment where employees are comfortable bringing decisions and, more specifically, comfortable to assume responsibility. Achieving the necessary level of trust takes a lot of work.

Most of the changes required to do are the kind that seem straightforward on paper but can be immensely difficult to implement consistently. Renowned business educator Marshall Goldsmith, for instance, has argued in the Harvard Business Review that leaders should deliberately avoid second-guessing employees “unless it’s absolutely necessary”. The reasoning is that the immediate gain will often be negated on the long term. If an employee feels like their perspective isn’t received well, Goldsmith opined, they will simply stop sharing ideas. This is just as true when it comes to making decisions.

In the same spirit, a company should be willing to forgive mistakes. In his HBR article, Goldsmith highlighted that employees will start having reservations if a company penalizes those who go against the flow. This sentiment is shared by other experts as well. The underlying reason is that slip-ups are inevitable when a business decides to give personnel more flexibility in how they carry out their work.

Of course, the tricky part is to ensure that the overall benefit outweighs the impact of any setbacks. This requires a company to be selective about who to entrust with extra responsibility. Plus, executive coach Bruce Kasanoff says that it’s important to clearly define the boundaries in which employees should operate. Articulating rules in advance can help preempt potentially costly missteps, as well as remove any doubts about company policy that may hold back an employee from bringing the right decision.

Having the right communications processes in place is arguably the biggest requirement to creating a more independent workforce. In a way, it’s the prerequisite to all the other items on the list.

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Coordinating a team whose members can independently decide how to carry out their work requires leaders to define more than just the ground rules (e.g. “only 10 percent of the revenue from a client account may be spent on retention activities”). To stay on mission, a company must also clearly communicate the end goal of a project and other key expectations. An effective set of guidelines provides direction while still giving employees sufficient latitude.

Organizations have developed several best practices for maintaining this balance day in and day out. For the most part, the focus is on encouraging frequent communications across different hierarchical levels. Software-as-a-service provider Skrumble, for instance, holds what co-founder Eric Lifson calls “Friday Roundtable Sessions”. Such regular meetings enable workers to seek clarification from their superior when needed, while providing leaders with an opportunity to check if the right decisions are being made.

Some companies, such as Amazon-owned online retailer Zappos, take it a step further. CEO Tony Hsieh sits in a same-sized cubicle as his employees and makes a point of referring to executives as “monkeys”. The idea is to make the leadership team accessible not only physically but also from an interpersonal standpoint,  so that workers feel they can reach out whenever the need arises.

The exact way a company chooses to implement this concept can vary. But while the details may differ, the guiding principle is the same: an open line of communications is essential to giving employees the support they need to be productive independently.

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