Is Employee Autonomy the Key to Successful Workplace Collaboration?

Here’s an important question most business leaders have probably never asked – but it could be the key to future growth and organizational prosperity. How free do your employees feel in the workplace?

Without an environment of authentic autonomy, your workforce is limited by both overt and subtle controls and influences. While workplace rules, policies, and expectations are absolutely necessary for a functional business environment. This is true from six-person start-ups to enterprise level corporations.

It is this same guiding framework that can suffocate the life and creativity out of a collaborative team if left unchecked. The structure designed to facilitate and leverage your employees could be what is extinguishing their ability to thrive, expand, and grow.

This e-book called “The Psychology of Collaboration” from Microsoft talks about the importance of collaboration in 2017. Because it is often it is the unspoken rules that limit us more than the spoken ones.

For example, managers may claim their employees are empowered and free to come up with ideas, think outside of the box, or veer away from the standard way of doing things.

But in practice taking such creative license must be done at one’s own peril. You can put a team of the best minds together but if they don’t feel free to express their ideas and push each other in a safe environment, they’re not going to.

Teresa Amabile, who has studied workplace creativity and productivity for decades and is the author of numerous books on the subject, including The Progress Principle, says that often managers only grant autonomy in name. The reality is that employees are forced to diverge at their own risk and so often don’t.

The Cost of Disempowerment

When asked about what is important to achieving organizational success, 71 percent of executives surveyed for a Harvard Business Review report cited employee engagement. We’ve known for some time that engagement is an essential component of business growth. Highly engaged organizations are known to have double to rate of success, dramatically reduced levels of turnover and absenteeism and 22 percent higher productivity.

Still, for many companies, engagement isn’t happening. As few as 13 percent of employees feel highly engaged. Only a third of workers in the US feel engaged at all, and the majority are simply not that committed to the companies they work for. The cost of this apathy is estimated to be between $450 and $550 billion in lost productivity every year.

While employee well-being initiatives, team building exercises, and even casual Fridays and modern collaborative environments can do a lot for motivating and engaging a team of individuals, all of these strategies are overlooking a key factor to facilitating engagement.

In order for people to feel vested in what they do, they have to be in control. A study published in Psychological Science found that employees were 26 percent more satisfied with their work when they held a position of power.

How Can Business Leaders Better Empower Their Teams?

This doesn’t mean it is necessary to create a scenario in which everyone is the boss. We all know what happens when there are too many cooks in the kitchen.

What it does imply, however, is that all individuals should be granted some degree of autonomy over how they work. As Amabile explains, “Creativity thrives when managers let people decide how to climb a mountain; they needn’t, however, let employees choose which one.”

For example, having the freedom to determine their own process and within which environment they can complete different tasks can completely revolutionize the workday for many people.

Psychologist Herman Miller explains that something as simple as recognizing and allowing space for the needs of introverts and extroverts, permitting each to choose what works for them, can facilitate greater comfort, less stress, and an exponential increase in productivity.

Nuances like room color, noise level, aesthetics, and having a private or open environment can have a huge impact on an individual’s ability to get work done and more importantly, to be creative.

Giving introverted employees the autonomy to collaborate virtually from home and extroverted workers the opportunity to engage with co-workers in a stimulating atmosphere such as a coffee shop down the street or an employee lounge area, can bring out the best in both personality types.

Another powerful way to give employees more autonomy is to delegate more decision making tasks. A great leader knows what each team member’s strengths are, and uses them. If someone is highly creative, involve them in the next product development meeting. An individual who has experience in a particular area may be able to take on more responsibility for a project related to their area of expertise.

Consider which individuals may be useful at strategic planning meetings, no matter where they are in the organizational hierarchy. It is this type of non-linear workplace thinking that will allow people to shine based on who they are as a unique individual, not necessarily as a particular role or job title. It also lets your team know that they work in an environment where opportunities are open to them so they can learn and grow professionally.

Leaders can also empower their employees with frequent feedback. The idea of having an annual performance review is outdated and unpalatable to both employees and managers. Research shows that 77 percent of HR executives believe performance reviews are not accurate reflections of what an employee contributes.

Creating the opportunity to provide ongoing, constructive feedback, on the other hand, can allow for a positive feedback loop between management and employees. This can help to build trust, strengthen workplace relationships and can even foster greater equity.

Open communication channels can also be used to identify errors or deal with any areas of confusion before problems occur in the first place.

Today’s technology makes it easy to open up multiple communication channels. With instant messaging apps, video conferencing, and collaborative workplace apps, there’s no reason why managers and employees can’t leverage the potential of fluid workplace communication.

Automation Is for Machines, Autonomy Is for Humans

As we move deeper into the digital era and as our technology continues to evolve, business leaders need to understand the opportunity that is emerging today. Automation is freeing up every business’s most valuable asset – the human mind. We need to take advantage of this shift.

It is the responsibility of those in leadership roles to unlock the great untapped potential that lies within each individual. This does imply the role of manager has to evolve from taskmaster to guide.

However, by making a conscious effort to move in this direction and allowing your employees more control and empowering their actions and decisions, you’re allowing them to be more human. And that’s what will drive engagement, foster growth, and reveal the limitless potential of a business staffed by a team of committed, motivated, inspired individuals.

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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner  is a Top CMO, Content Marketing and Digital Marketing Influencer, an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula" and he is the CEO and Founder of Marketing Insider Group, a leading Content Marketing Agency . He has worked in leadership positions in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as for thriving startups. Today, Michael helps build successful content marketing programs for leading brands and startups alike. Subscribe here for regular updates.