How to transform your workforce by embracing autonomy
Updated: Feb 13
A few years ago, I was entrusted with the most challenging project of my career. I was a young man, working at a very large, multinational company. While that company was a real institution within its sector, boasting a long and rich history, its working practices had slowly begun to stagnate. The behaviours that had served that company well in the past were now bedded in for good. But in today’s age of rapid change, those behaviours were becoming redundant.
I was tasked with a very ambitious people transformation project, with a seriously ambitious goal. Our objective was to transform what it meant to go to work for around 17,000 people.
We needed to find ways of breaking down that traditional mindset, and disrupting the stubborn behaviours that had become entrenched. We wanted to re-energise our workforce, and unlock the latent potential within the company that was currently untapped.
I had a clear vision of where I wanted the project to go, and naturally I had plenty of ideas on how we should get there. But come crunch time, I found myself gripped by a real sense of discomfort.
Anyone who has built something from scratch will know exactly what I’m talking about. Whether you’re a startup founder, a small business owner, or - like me - the leader of a project, the sentiment is the same.
I was struggling to let go.
The team that I had assembled was both incredibly skilled and impressively dynamic. And yet I was finding it very difficult to give them the freedom they needed to go out and deliver. I was fighting a very strong instinct to direct, to manage, to oversee every aspect of the work and how it was done.
What is interesting about this is that I am, and had been for a long time, a huge believer in freedom and autonomy in the workplace. I’ve spent long stretches working in companies where they didn’t get this balance right - and I know exactly how grinding it is for everyone involved.
Later on in this article, I’m going to break down exactly how to build a culture of autonomy. But first, let’s take a closer look at exactly why autonomy is so important.
Why your business needs a culture of autonomy
1. It empowers your team to do their best work.
Perhaps the single greatest advantage of a culture of autonomy is the sense of empowerment that it brings to your employees. When your team has ownership over what they are doing, they start investing in it at a personal level - not just professionally.
Give your team the freedom to take ownership of their work and you’ll see everything they do imbued with purpose, energy, and enthusiasm.
The alternative can be seriously destructive. If you can’t relinquish control over your team, then they will sense that distrust and will find it hard to personally invest in the project. I can remember from personal experience just how demotivating it is to have an ongoing back-and-forth with your boss on a key decision, only for them to finally go with your original recommendation - just three months later than planned.
2. It means decision-making takes place at the point of contact
To some extent, this is really common sense, but it’s incredible how often people overlook it. Decisions should always be taken by the people with the best grasp of the issues at hand. In the vast majority of cases, this isn’t the founder or CEO - it’s the implementers that they have hired. So why should every decision be deferred to the top of the business?
One memory that stands out is the fruitless exercise of labouring over powerpoint packs for a previous boss, trying to give him the information he needed to make a call on something. Inevitably, your presentation gets half the time and attention it needs, and the decision made afterwards suffers for it.
3. It’s easier to let power flow downwards than it is to push information up
One good trick for founders is to try and think about just how much time and effort your team spends just trying to communicate with you.
Take that Powerpoint pack as an example.
Just how much did each slide cost the company when you quantify the time that the team spent on it? What progress could they have been making if they were working on other things instead?
Forcing your teams to defer to you on every single decision isn’t only ineffective, it’s also incredibly inefficient. Loosen your grip, and your employees will have more time to work on what’s really important to the business.
Now - I know what you’re thinking
If you are indeed a founder or a team leader, then I can probably guess what’s going through your mind right now.
“If I’m not telling my employees what to do, how can I be sure that they are doing the right thing?”
And you’re right. Uncontrolled autonomy could well cause a sense of confusion or a lack of focus. The answer is alignment.
Autonomy & alignment
Alignment describes the concept of leaders and teams sharing a uniform vision of their company goals, and a clear understanding of their respective roles in achieving them.
When teams have high alignment, they understand exactly why they’re there in the first place, what the goals of the company are, and how their team is expected to contribute to those goals.
If you can achieve this high level of alignment, then you can afford high levels of autonomy.
Turning theory into practice
Like I said before, I understood all these theories as well as anyone. But understanding the theory, and actually executing on it are very different things. It requires something of a leap of faith.
If you can make that leap, then the benefits can be tremendous. You will see productivity, innovation, employee engagement and customer satisfaction sky-rocket.
With my experiences in mind - here are some simple steps that you can take right now to start turning that theory into practice.
4 steps to creating a culture of autonomy
1. Change your mindset - 'good enough' is better than 'never perfect'
Many founders/leaders look at every piece of work the business does and comes to the conclusion that “it’s not perfect”. What they often mean in this case is “I didn’t do it, so it can’t be right”.
You need to let go of this mindset - it has such a corrosive effect on a team’s self-esteem. Instead, have some faith in your employees. They are more immediately involved in the work they have been doing - if they have done it differently to how you would have approached it, it’s most likely because they have more information than you.
2. Stop "seagulling"
Seagulling is a term borrowed from tech circles, but it’s relevant in every business. "Seagulling" describes the act of someone not directly concerned with a piece of work floating over it, picking at any flaws they perceive, then flying away. This has a really damaging effect on a team’s belief in their own autonomy. If you do genuinely want to give your team the freedom to think differently, take risks and sometimes make mistakes, you have to leave them to it.
3. Realise that “I’ll get to it” means “it’ll never get done”
Many founders will have fallen into this trap. They see a piece of work that they think can be improved, and - totally uninvited - they add it to their ‘to do’ list. The issue is that it will naturally fall to the bottom of their list - while for perhaps a whole team of people, the issue was their top of theirs. You’ve tried to help, but inadvertently you’ve become a blocker.
4. Only ever talk about the outcomes - your team will figure out how you get there
When I took on that big transformation project, I committed to the team that I would talk only about outcomes. As much as my instincts willed me to, I would never tell them how to go about achieving them.
This will undoubtedly feel strange for the first few weeks - it definitely did for me. But take that leap of faith, you’ll undoubtedly be rewarded by the returns.
Talking only in terms of end goals allows your team to work creatively. They are free to leverage their experience and expertise to find the best way of doing the job, rather than remaining within some artificial parameters that you have set for them.
To conclude: the benefits are real
It’s quite easy to naysay this kind of thinking - to view it as overly-idealistic, and not rooted in the real world. But the results are real, and well worth pursuing. If you can combine highly autonomous, freely-acting teams with a sense of common purpose across the business, then there’s no limit to what you can achieve.