Pandemic-induced work-from-home arrangements gave a lot of airtime to the concept of “autonomy.” Without managers to oversee their every move, employees naturally had to engage in more self-direction. This idea spooks a lot of business leaders, who fear team members will loaf when they’re not being monitored or given detailed instruction.
For the majority of workers, this attitude is misguided. Although some employees are ill-equipped to work without the structure of an office and being told what to do and when to do it, most aren’t. They embrace the chance to prove their ability to accomplish business goals. They may need time to make the adjustment, but they thrive when they’re given a sense of empowerment over their own work.
You may be surprised at how your team ramps up performance when you stop making assumptions and allow them to make significant decisions for themselves. Here’s how you can boost your team’s autonomy and why you should give it a try.
Delegate Better and Lead Quietly
Delegation is a tough act for many leaders. They cling to a belief that their title makes them the boss of everyone in every way. If you want to build an autonomous team, you’re going to have to loosen your grip.
Delegate roles to those team members whose talents, skills and experience seem best suited for them. Give your team the authority to make and execute decisions without requiring them to get your approval at every turn. If goals and assignments are clear, employees should be allowed to take their respective balls and run with them.
Your role as a leader is to give your team the resources they need and to be available to answer questions and provide guidance. Let’s say you want to delegate broader responsibility to the tech lead on your team. That person has been carrying most of the coding burden. You’ll need to work with your lead on finding ways to hand off the coding so they can step into the new mentoring and managing duties you envision for them.
When you delegate authority, you’re giving your team the opportunity to fully invest themselves in their jobs and take ownership of the process and outcomes. Nothing but good can come from that.
Give Everyone Autonomy and Watch Leaders Emerge
Team autonomy can’t be a pick-and-choose affair. You will need to give everyone on the team autonomy to make this work. That includes those members who have hitherto relied more on management direction than independent thought.
The delegation of authority to specific team members doesn’t mean they work in a vacuum. They still need to collaborate with the rest of the team. If you’ve done your job well, those employees you’ve asked to step up will provide the structure some team members need while maintaining the team’s overall autonomy.
For example, if you delegate the responsibility of creating a project timeline to one individual, that person will need to consult with the other team members. The team will discuss factors that affect the timeline and create one everybody thinks they can live with. They’ll then hand off the timeline for you to monitor (not approve).
What happens during this process is the emergence of leaders at every level. Autonomy encourages peer-to-peer learning that organically creates a strong team dynamic. Everyone learns something from everyone else.
Effective leaders build up those around them. If you’re providing the autonomy that allows employees to lead on various levels, you’re building a remarkably productive and resilient team with tremendous depth.
Trust Your Team, and They Will Reciprocate
Trust is a reciprocal proposition, especially when building autonomous teams. You must trust your team to make good decisions when you give them autonomy. In return, your team must trust that you have confidence in their ability to make decisions that lead to strong results.
Employee trust is critical to key factors like productivity, collaboration, innovation and conflict resolution. These are the qualities of a successful team, which in turn translates to a company’s success.
No one said it would be easy to trust your team to make crucial decisions for themselves. This is where your ability to mentor, guide and coach comes into play.
Autonomy doesn’t mean you stand by and watch the team or a project self-destruct. On the contrary, autonomous teams gain confidence from knowing you are monitoring their efforts and that, if they get too off course, you will step in. For example, you’ll take time to discuss possible solutions with emerging leaders who appear overwhelmed or suggest the team meet to brainstorm ideas to resolve issues before they go too far.
What you won’t do is throw up your hands and take over. If you do, you’re telling your team you’ve lost trust in them, and they’ll respond in kind. If you nudge them in the right direction, they can course-correct on their own. That’s what autonomous teamwork is all about.
Lifting Your Team’s Autonomy
Giving your team autonomy doesn’t mean giving up your leadership. You just have to approach it in a different way.
The degree of autonomy you allow and where you apply it are still at your discretion. But even a little of it, done well, will create more constructive collaboration than chaos.