Earning Autonomy

In the past we noted the importance of achieving autonomy for ensuring an engaged work force. We’ve also suggested an approach for managers to use to help provide just enough guidance for staff to take steps towards greater independence in their work days. The idea of the importance of autonomy has been around business conversations since the late 60s. The benefits weren’t just for worker satisfaction but because the transition from assembly lines to knowledge work resulted in work production which was less structured. Those in the field needed freedom to do implement general directions that micromanaging from above simply couldn’t accommodate. A past GM Chairman, Alfred Sloan, told legendary business writer, Peter Drucker, that a characteristic of a successful manager is that “He must be absolutely tolerant and pay no attention to how a man does his work.” Peter Drucker took this approach to heart and was a leading proponent of recognizing the value of autonomy for the emerging world of knowledge workers in the late 1960s. In 1967, Drucker wrote in The Effective Executive, “The knowledge worker cannot be supervised closely or in detail. He must direct himself.” More than 30 years later, Drucker continued to advocate for autonomy noting in an article, “Knowledge workers have to manage themselves. They have to have autonomy.” A reason that Drucker promoted autonomy is echoed by Cal Newport in A World Without Email where Newport writes, “Indeed, knowledge workers often knew more about their specialities than those who managed them.”

In this article we’d like to offer some suggestions to consider if you’re on the front lines trying to get greater autonomy over your workflows and day. If you feel like you’re at the mercy of management and being over-directed, the answer isn’t to push back. If you don’t like being told what to do, first realize it’s not about you. Start with shifting your perspective. Yes, autonomy is the goal. Yes, you would like to be able to spend more time directing your own day. In order to earn this objective, you need to start by being a good GOY. Get over yourself. You’re not entitled to autonomy. Your boss doesn’t owe you freedom. Start with developing an answer to how can you help them. Your boss wants to see you do a good job. They hired you for a reason. Your success reflects well on them. If they are over-managing, consider it a reflection of their desire to do well. The more they care about an outcome the more they may want to control the way you work to achieve it.

If you’ve been told both what to do and how to do it, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re being micromanaged. We all have functions to fill. Micromanaging occurs where instruction morphs into constant monitoring and direction. Being told what to do isn’t micromanaging. If you’re new in a role, the level of supervision required may reasonably be expected to be greater than where you have had a role for longer. Again, this supervision isn’t micromanaging, it’s offered in order to help you get up to speed. In many cases, what feels like micro-managing may require an attitude adjustment on our part.

Additionally, micromanagers may do so because they are invested in a particular way of doing things. Perhaps they created the workflow. Perhaps they used to do this job themselves and had success with doing things this way. Perhaps their experience in this area has led the business to do well. It’s natural for them to want to sustain the positive contribution of their past efforts. It would be good to assume that they are suggesting a direction with the best of intentions. They may have a broader context driving their decisions than what is available to you. It may be your ego nudging you to suggest that you see things, know things, and therefore can recommend a new approach.

If a motivation behind micromanaging is a lack of trust, what can you do to build trust? How can you take steps to inspire trust in your supervisor towards you? Communication and competence. Inform and perform. Of what should you inform and how? Err on the side of over-informing. Chances are that your role may afford you the opportunity to be the eyes and ears for your boss. You may have your finger on the pulse of parts of the business and the hearts of customers. Your boss and the business depends on your ability to pick up what is occurring on the front lines. Their ability to prioritize is enhanced where the quality of information that flows from the bottom up is robust and current. How to inform? Try to do it formally. Don’t shoot texts, emails, and drop by their office every time you have something to offer. Consolidate your information, put it together in a well written and organized document, then send it via email to your boss highlighting your availability and willingness to discuss and add context in a sit down meeting when it is convenient for them.

Then, before asking for autonomy, ask yourself how is your job performance? Are you clear on your role? Are you doing a good job? Do you have objective indications of that? If your boss insists on things being done a particular way, have you been complying? Are you good at delivering exactly what it is they want? Do you have a track record of performance? This will increase their confidence in your competence. Moreover, it will increase the chance that any ideas you may subsequently offer will be considered. Can you demonstrate that you’re a team player? Does your boss see you as being a zero? Do you dilute more drama than you deliver? Can you be counted on making the life of your boss easier? Can you point to objectives in your current or past roles where you made progress and were successful working with minimal supervision? Are you asking for autonomy out of one side of your mouth while your actions say something else? Are you someone that regularly asks for support and needs direction? Do you evidence initiative in your day or are you stymied by non-routine tasks? Consider asking your supervisor a question suggested by Todd Henry in Die Empty, “What do you expect from me and am I falling short?”

In 2012, Cal Newport wrote So Good They Can’t Ignore You in which he encourages people to make themselves first and foremost valuable to their organizations. We need to do our part to earn career capital. Newport suggests this capital can then be spent or used as leverage to remake your job into something more personally rewarding. Once you’ve done your part, the next step is to consider getting clearer as to what kind of autonomy it is you’re after. Why is it you want autonomy? Is it just because you want to be left alone to your own devices or because your ability to contribute to the organization will be improved as a result? Recognize that it is your responsibility to help your boss see that it is in their interest to afford you autonomy. Instead of complaining to your boss that he’s like the Fugees song and killing you softly with his touch, convince him that allowing you to work with less supervision will provide him with more time to serve higher value roles to the organization. His skills are needed to strategize and see the bigger picture and not oversee minutiae.

Are you able to complete the following sentence: To me, autonomy at work is achieved where I can __________________________. I feel motivated to work when _____________________________. Ask yourself if there’s an aspect of autonomy that is both appealing and accessible to you in your role. In a past article we talked about four components of autonomy that Daniel Pink set out in his book Drive. Which of these apply to your role? Is there one that is both appealing to you and that may be possible in your role? How can you encourage your boss to allow you some freedom over this aspect. Don’t start with demands over all four aspects of autonomy. Chip away at getting some small improvement in independence. What would be most beneficial for you? Is it flexibility as to the timing of your work day, deciding what tasks to tackle, having freedom to choose how to do your tasks, or picking with whom you can work? How can you demonstrate that your employer will benefit from accommodating some aspect of autonomy for you? Can you communicate that with more autonomy your sense of ownership will also increase. Autonomy aligns staff interest with that of the business and a shared responsibility to the corporation’s outcome grows. You want to be a valuable, contributing member of the team. You want your full capabilities to be used for the benefit of the business.

Consider inviting your boss to encourage your team to try an exercise offered by Piers Steel in The Procrastination Equation. Professor Steel suggests discussing past job experiences with your team. Steel calls the exercise, “My Job is Worse Than Your Job.” Team members talk about past roles where the job experience was awful. The group is then tasked with parsing out the parts of the job that were the pain points. Through the exercise team members (and managers) realize what work is unpleasant. Efforts can then be made around trying to minimize these as much as possible. Questions can be raised as to why things are done a certain way. Can changes be contemplated to improve commitment and morale? From here, a stop doing list can be created. Even if mundane or tedious tasks remain necessary, perhaps the timing or the who can be altered to accommodate some autonomy for staff.

Can you offer a plan to fix something? If you identify a gap in training or training materials, for example, can you demonstrate initiative by figuring a process out, detailing the learning, and consolidating it into a learning document? Do you find yourself or others encountering similar difficulties in your work day? If so, can you write down what you did together to work through these? Consider asking for additional responsibilities. If you can demonstrate that you’re interested in learning more and doing more, your boss may become more interested in finding a separate project for you to pursue. You could even suggest an additional project or responsibility and offer a plan to pursue.

If you have suggestions or a plan you would like to implement, set it out and present it to your boss. Ensure that the details connect with the direction of the business as you understand it. Offer to lead a trial project on an initiative. Introduce the idea in the form of a detailed business case. Offer the idea, detail the benefit, spell out the plan. Then layout the ask. What is needed? Is it just permission to try or are other resources required? What are the risks? What could go wrong? What are the benefits? How will your boss know what success looks like? Be prepared to demonstrate how it links to your responsibilities and how the outcome will be both measurable and beneficial for the business. Detail what you will do and when, then seek permission to pursue. Most importantly, when you’ve been given the greenlight to go ahead, ensure you execute. If you are able to do what you said you will do, you have done the single best thing you can to earn additional opportunities for autonomy.

Be careful what you ask for as autonomy comes with accountability. As you gain freedom over how you can do your work, you accept responsibility for the decisions you make. In A World Without Email Cal Newport writes, “to gain something valuable like autonomy means you have to offer something unambiguously valuable in return. You must, in other words, become accountable for what you produce if you want the freedom to improve how you do so.” The good news is that the accountability that follows autonomy can be deeply rewarding. Accountability can be something we like, even need. It is how we see the value of our own efforts to the organization. It can inspire our commitment and help us feel like we’re “winning.”

Along with all of the above, develop a list of articles and research that supports the value of staff autonomy. Point out instances in your business where those that are free to operate are doing a good job. Finally, be patient. Just like Rome apparently wasn’t built in a day, neither is autonomy. Independence must be earned incrementally and over time.

Additional Reading:

(99+) Earning autonomy at work: 8 practical steps you can take today. | LinkedIn

3 Easy and Practical Ways to Achieve Autonomy in the Workplace | SnackNation