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The link between successful employee engagement and autonomy

When it comes to creating a healthy work environment that encourages employees to do their best, autonomy is key. We all know that being micromanaged at work is a dreadful experience, but similarly, working under someone who gives too little direction can also be a stressful ordeal.

When you have too much (or too little) guidance at work, you might find yourself feeling exhausted, frustrated and lacking in motivation. Your employees are sure to feel the same way. One of the best ways to encourage employee engagement and to build solid bonds with your staff is to get the fine balance of workplace autonomy just right.

What is autonomy?

According to dictionary.com autonomy simply means ‘the condition of self government.’ Apply this definition to the workplace and you have a pretty clear picture – workplace autonomy means that an employee has the freedom and right to work in the way that suits them best. They are given direction, they understand what is expected of them, and they are then left alone to complete these tasks.
Jack Welch, the CEO of General Electric between 1981 and 2001, once stated that his main task at work was to, “Place the best people for the best opportunities and to properly distribute the monies to the right places. That’s all. Communicate your ideas, distribute the resources and get out of the way.”

For some of us, communicating our ideas is a struggle. For others, the process of delegating tasks can be overwhelming. But for the vast majority of managers, the hardest part of our job is the ‘getting out of the way’ that Jack Welch describes above.

Autonomy is a huge part of employee motivation

Let’s use the example of your favourite hobby – let’s say that you love to bake. Imagine now that you are standing in your kitchen, a nice mug of tea at your side, and you are measuring the ingredients for a gorgeous cake. Now, imagine that someone is staring over your shoulder the entire time, maybe even shouting instructions and ‘tsk’ing when you make a wrong move. Even worse – now let’s imagine that they have the power to grade you, rate you and affect your income. That fun ‘hobby’ doesn’t seem like so much fun now, does it?

A lack of autonomy can completely suck the enjoyment from any task. Even the things that we love to do the most can become stressful and fraught when someone is micromanaging our every move. You have selected the right people for the right job – now it is time to let them ‘do their thing’ and get to work. You will likely be impressed by the results.

This is not just anecdotal evidence. Recent LRN study showed that the companies whose employees claimed that they had “high levels of freedom” were far more likely (10 to 20 times, in fact) to outperform competitors whose employees reported low freedom.

Why is autonomy important?

When it comes to performing up to our highest potential, we need to want to do well. Employees are far more likely to want to do things that they view as fun, challenging and mentally rewarding. This might mean parsing a difficult text, engaging with customers or programming a new computer system. In order to have ‘fun’ in the workplace, countless studies show that an individual needs to be given the freedom and space to work it out and understand it on their own.

Research (led by University of Minnesota sociology professor Phyllis Moen) has shown that those employees who report a higher level of autonomy are less stressed and healthier overall. Employees who are allowed to make their own hours, choose their own projects (within reason) and work mainly unsupervised had higher levels of energy, better sleep hygiene, lower levels of stress and better over all health.

Why is this important for you as an employer? Simply put – healthier and happier employees are more engaged and have higher self esteem. They feel more connected to your company and your goals, and they will remain with you for longer, performing at a higher level. This increased retention saves you money on recruitment and training, and positively affects your bottom line.

A fine balance – How much autonomy is the right amount?

When it comes to granting autonomy in the workplace, you need to strike the right balance. If you grant too much autonomy, you might end up with employees who feel disconnected from your brand and unsure of your vision. This lack of clarity can be almost as toxic as the reverse – micromanagement.

As we have already covered, no one likes to be micromanaged. If you find yourself checking in with an employee too often, you need to take a step back and assess the situation. Have a trusted colleague give you an objective second opinion – are you being too hands on, or is the employee underperforming? Perhaps they are not suited for their role, or maybe they need more training.

It is always better to initially extend a little too much autonomy rather than come on too strong. You can use this initial period as a way to suss out which employees might be top performers. Top performers are self-starters and quick to learn – they will often take a small amount of autonomy and run with it, over performing and exceeding your expectations.

That said, you do need to ensure that you provide enough high quality training so that your new employees feel confident when starting in their role. This is especially important for your millennial employees. A recent CNBC report shows that millennials value training as much as they value autonomy – providing thorough training needs to be one of your top priorities. Only then can you really offer the kind of autonomy that will make the difference for your firm.

Moving forward – autonomy will benefit employee engagement

It can be hard to change your management style, especially when you might have been in your position for many years. That said, giving your employees more autonomy will make your job easier, improve employee engagement and help your company’s bottom line.

Do you have any questions about workplace autonomy? Have you had any relevant experiences with this issue? Join the conversation and leave a comment below.

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