Fostering Autonomy: 4 Pitfalls to Avoid, 3 Keys to Success

Let’s face it: Autonomy within the workplace is a lot rarer than it should be. Employees may hear messages of empowerment from leaders, but often feel constrained by the actions of those very same people. Leaders may sincerely want to foster greater autonomy for their employees, but be unaware of unhealthy dynamics that undermine employees’ belief and trust that they truly have freedom of action and decision making.

Fortunately, there are some common patterns to be mindful of and clear actions that leaders and employees can take to foster cultures of trust, growth, and autonomy.


Common Patterns of Low-Autonomy Teams and Organizations

As a leader, how can you tell if your organization is not walking the talk about autonomy? As an employee, what are the situations that indicate you don’t really have the trust and freedom to make decisions or take actions? Here are some common patterns to watch for:

  • Micromanagement – A classic pattern, due to its prevalence and persistence. It can show up as an overbearing need of a manager or peer to be constantly in the know or dictating what should happen in a project or activity that has been theoretically delegated. A subtler, but still insidious, form of this pattern is the offering of copious advice and guidance that practically dictates how something should look or be done, largely eliminating the opportunity for creativity or discretion for the employee.
  • “Shifting the Burden” Dynamic – A manager tasks an employee with tackling a challenge. Before the employee has an opportunity to adequately work through the challenge, the manager grows impatient and provides the solution themselves, effectively undercutting the employee’s performance and growth. The manager “takes on the burden” of doing the work and comes away feeling less confidence in the employee, making the assignment of assignments less likely in the future. The employee comes away feeling incapable and less encouraged to bring solutions to the table.
  • High-Altitude Decision Making – Decisions, even relatively simple ones, are only made by people at the top of the organization. Everything must “go up the chain” for any real action to be taken. Not only does this slow down decision making overall; it also fosters an unhealthy, highly political environment and feeds a self-fulfilling sense of leadership dependence.
  • High Accountability, Low Discretion – If constant justification of decisions and actions is expected—an accountability focus on steroids—then it’s unlikely that there’s true autonomy. Taken to extremes, this can foster a “blame and shame” environment. Autonomy will also often entail explanation of decision and actions, but the spirit of discretion should always be at the heart of these discussions.


Foster Autonomy the Right Way

Being aware of the unhealthy patterns above is a good first step in fostering autonomy in your organization. As they say, recognition of the challenge is half the battle! Then there are clear actions that you can take to ensure autonomy is part of your overall employee experience.

  • Set clear goals, priorities, and expectations… then get out of the way – You can’t expect others to move things forward on their own if you have not been clear about your strategic goals, priorities, and expectations. Providing this clarity right out of the gate gets everyone on the same page and allows for more independent action. If you’ve done a good job of clarifying, you can—and should—stay out of the way of those independent actions and decisions, only offering support and encouragement when needed.
  • Push decision making and idea generation deep into the organization or team – Often the best decisions and solutions come from those closest to a challenge and its impacts. Work to engage those people, listen to their ideas and perspectives, and visibly support their decisions and actions even if it differs from you would go about it. Approaching things this way fosters not only greater autonomy, but also creates a feeling of shared responsibility.
  • Plan for and preserve time and space for learning and coaching – There is no autonomy without risk, no freedom without responsibility. A simpler way to put it: Mistakes are bound to happen, so expect them and be ready to address them in a way that fosters team learning and individual professional growth. Making this investment of time and effort may mean going slower than you might like now, but will pay off in your employees and teammates feeling supported and more confident in their capabilities in the future. Done well, it can set up a virtuous cycle of increasing effectiveness and decreasing need for direct supervision.

With the right awareness and thoughtful, consistent actions, any team or organization can create and sustain the conditions for employees to feel a real sense of autonomy and the freedom to act on it.


About the Author

David Snavely leads PeopleFirm’s Culture Services Practice. David has dedicated his 20+ year  career to helping organizations transform how they operate, through greater clarity of strategic vision and objectives, high-performing cultures, optimized organizational structures and processes, and improved employee collaboration and engagement. His objectivity, candor and thoughtfulness have gained him the respect as a trusted advisor to leaders across a number of industries, including technology, health care, and financial services. David lives in Seattle, WA and when not working with clients, he is often voraciously reading on a broad and eclectic range of topics, hiking the Pacific Northwest, or traveling to interesting places.