Employee Autonomy – Really?

In the last two articles in this series I discussed the factors surrounding employee engagement, what our employees need in the work environment to lead engagement, and how our management style (autocratic vs. participative) can promote employee engagement. In the last article in the series, I will talk about a concept that the Gallup 12 Poll research found underpins these concepts: Employee Autonomy.

The Gallup Poll research found there are three components to employee autonomy: 1) When They Do It; 2) How They Do It; 3) Whom They Do It With. This probably sounds scary for many managers even if we embrace the concept of a consultative/participative management style and strive to carry it out. After all won’t this lead to chaos? If employees decide these factors what will managers need to do? The concept is not that extreme and the ICMA University Workshop on Employee Engagement, Motivation, and The Leadership Challenge provides some guidance on these ideas and ways to integrate them in our organizations.

1)     When They Do It – This does not mean that our employees come and go as they please. This means that we emphasize the discipline of results over the discipline of schedule. This concept applies better to employees who are working behind the scenes than those that are programmed to front line customer service functions. Emphasize results and provide flexibility in schedule. This does not mean we allow them to blow off work but it does mean we do not sweat the small stuff when it comes to time and schedule provided they are working on their own or with others to achieve good results.

2)     How They Do It – This really speaks to not micromanaging our employees. If you have hired and/or trained the right people, then we ought to be able to provide them some initial guidance toward the end results and then step back and let them do it. Just keeping an open door for their inquires or checking in once or twice during the project will be enough. This really shows that their manager trusts them and their capability to get good results – the trust will improve employee engagement.

3)     Whom They Do It With – Team? This is probably the most difficult component to embrace, our organizations have established work units and people were at least initially hired into positions presumably because they wanted them. There are a couple ways though that you could work to introduce this framework into your organization.

a.      Introduce an interdepartmental team project when the opportunity presents itself and choose people who have unique strengths that can contribute to the end results. You are still choosing with whom they work and you are building their experience working in a group of people that they do not traditionally work closely with on a day to day basis. This will help form relationships between work units, build cohesion, and help prepare for the second method of introducing this concept.

b.     Introduce an open source project. In this model, the employees themselves choose whether they are going to work on it, and they decide as a team who will do what, when, and how. Now they are choosing when to do it, how it gets done, and with whom they are working. Notice this model integrates all three components of employee autonomy.

Another suggestion generally that affects all three of these components would be to structure some employee free time where they can think about a problem their work unit is having, or that they have observed generally within the organization. They can spend their time choosing what the problem is and formulate a solution to it. They can consult others they will be a resource (choosing with whom they work). Be sure to structure some time to debrief these solutions in a non-critical environment. This allows employees the freedom they need to be engaged and will produce profits and innovation for your organization.

So employee autonomy does not mean letting everyone do what they want, it does mean providing degrees of freedom to our employees to decide when, how, and with whom they work. These are all factors that promote employee engagement and prevent its costly opposite active disengagement. The concept of employee autonomy is really another way of looking at having and implementing a consultative or participate management style and work culture by degree not by absoluteness.

As leaders and managers we all know the unique circumstances that exist within our organizations that will make these concepts feasible to implement and we will have to work around those to be successful toward that end. If the term employee autonomy gives the wrong idea, do not use it, you can still implement some of these suggestions and models to strive improve employee engagement. I have used the team model numerous times without being disappointed before I had ever heard the term employee autonomy. Perhaps the most important thing we can do is not implement sweeping change but take small steps towards implementing these concepts in our organization.  With billions of dollars lost each year in profits and productivity, we cannot afford to ignore those that are actively disengaged and take positive steps toward improving engagement.

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