Why Autonomy Is the Key to a Happy Workplace Culture

  • August 9, 2018

How do you like to do your job: With the freedom to work at an efficient-but-comfortable pace, or with someone constantly—possibly literally—breathing down your neck?

More than likely, you answered with the former. Unfortunately, many in the workplace experience the latter, dealing with signs of micromanagement on a daily basis. The consequences of micromanagement are far-reaching—it increases turnover, destroys morale, and, perhaps most severely, literally harms employees, as a study from Indiana University has found.

Recent research by the University of Birmingham Business School discovered that employees who felt they had higher levels of autonomy reported higher levels of job satisfaction and improved overall well-being. In other words, they experienced a happier workplace—and happy workplaces are often profitable workplaces.

Autonomy should give employees the space they need to succeed, but should also provide a means to enlist your guidance when necessary. The upcoming book Going Horizontal by Samantha Slade details the benefits of autonomy and emphasizes that it is not rooted in unbridled freedom, but rather in trust—trust from managers to let employees work without undue pressure, and trust that employees will deliver as expected and seek help when the situation arises. Read on to learn more about the dangers of micromanagement and the advantages of autonomy.

Stress and a Lack of Control

When people feel in control, at work or outside it, stress doesn’t seem so stressful. Imagine driving in rush hour. You could take one of many routes home. If one looks too slow, you have control to choose another. But if you get stuck in a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam that you can’t escape, you’ve lost most of your control. Work stress is similar, but in this case, the metaphorical traffic jam might be a boss who can’t help but micromanage. Autonomy is lost—and stressors outside of your control are far more frustrating than things you can take direct steps to remedy. As with a traffic jam, many employees don’t see an easy way out.

The Dangers of Micromanagement

According to Harvard Business Review, micromanagement costs U.S. businesses 3 trillion dollars per year. The most obvious signs of micromanagement are managers who don’t trust employees to get the job done right, think they can do it better, or just want to impose their will over subordinates.

However, another form of micromanagement that’s less obvious is someone who brings too much enthusiasm to their role and feels like they always need to be doing something. That something often takes the form of well-intentioned micromanaging. Consider this description from Henry Mintzberg’s book Managing: “Nothing is more dangerous in an organization than a manager with little to do. Managers are usually energetic people—that is how they got to be managers in the first place, and the more senior they are, the more energetic they tend to be. Put them in such geographic positions where they have little to do, and they will find things to do.”

Micromanagement not only leads to stress that cuts into productivity but also can increase employee turnover. A 2002 research study, as reported by Quartz, found that “The negative impacts [of micromanagement] are so intense that it is labeled among the top three reasons employees resign.” Attracting and keeping top talent is already a challenge; micromanagement, no matter how well-intentioned, will exacerbate the situation.

Transparency and Openness

Pulling back doesn’t mean entirely moving away. When you are transparent about mission and strategy, you are showing that you trust your employees to do their jobs—without interference and without the fear that they’ll constantly be questioned about every decision they make. You also encourage collaboration, innovation, and creativity because employees now feel they can freely give input and that their opinions will be valued.

Edgar H. Schein and Peter A. Schein, in their book Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust, offer an alternative to the term “transparency,” preferring “openness” because it highlights “that what and how we communicate is not a passive process of making things visible, but an active sharing, revealing, listening, understanding, and responding process.”

Empower Your Employees

Of course, being too hands-off can lead to disaster if the autonomous employee goes off the rails or just isn’t ready for a certain level of workplace freedom. Determining that critical point can be tricky. In Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest, author Peter Block writes, “People need to discover and explore their autonomy, but with the bosses in the room. The difficult part is to maintain contact without control. We often don’t know how to have a conversation where neither side is in control. We need to learn to ask questions. To make simple, direct statements. To live with not getting our way. To be a boss without playing a role.”

Incrementally providing decision-making opportunities can find you and your employees the happy medium between autonomy and oversight. Start small, and as workers prove their sound judgment, increase their latitude to handle day-to-day situations. Trust will build, and ideally, efficiency will jump both for your employees and yourself.

Culture of Respect

Mintzberg writes in Managing, “… leadership is a sacred trust earned from the respect of those people on the receiving end of it.” Because autonomy empowers employees and encourages positive communication, a culture of respect has more room to develop. Managers and employees alike celebrate each others’ successes and support each other through failures. Viewpoints are valued, and people apply what they’ve learned in the future.

Perhaps most importantly—when autonomy is flourishing and any signs of micromanagement have diminished—employees are happier. People feel in control and are better able to manage whatever comes their way—stressors don’t feel as stressful. Managers may find it a bit challenging to take a step back, but when they do, their teams and companies can take a big step forward. 

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