employee autonomy

Why Leaders Should Encourage Employee Autonomy

By Baili Bigham

Despite all we’ve written on the subject over the years, micromanagement continues to plague organizations everywhere, and at some point in your career, it’s likely you’ve experienced some form of it.

While it’s not every manager’s intention to adopt this notorious style of fear-based leadership, many find it hard to release their grip or struggle to grant full employee autonomy. Whatever the reason, the result is always the same: unmotivated and disengaged workers.

Employee autonomy doesn’t just empower your people to do their best work, it taps into a deeper, more personal motivation that surpasses what external rewards, like money, can offer. This leads to passionate employees that are more creative, confident, and productive, which in turn leads to more successful businesses with a better bottom line.

Although the impact of micromanaging can be detrimental to the growth and development of employees and teams, it’s still an unfortunate reality for many people. Below, we dive into the hard truth about micromanaging, self-determination, and actionable ways you can empower employee autonomy in your organization.

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Why do so many leaders micromanage?

Historically, companies have used paternalistic methods of leadership that involved a person in authority restricting the autonomy of others out of their supposed best interest. While this executive power might be good for parenting, say, a two-year-old, it doesn’t hold the same power when managing a team of capable adults. 

Micromanaging can look a lot like paternalistic leadership. Instead of granting employee autonomy from the beginning and leaning on the expertise of those you’ve hired, micromanagers tend to resort to treating their direct reports like, well… children. This is a surefire way to hinder performance, disempower collaboration, and exhaust motivation. 

Training managers to seek out the unique strengths of their employees and foster an environment that builds on those attributes is vital to maintaining an agile business. When employees are gaining mastery in their natural strengths and given the space to perform at their peak, they are more intrinsically motivated to do their best work. For companies to accomplish this, it requires a deep understanding of how to grant autonomy to each employee the right way and avoiding common mistakes.

The benefits of granting employee autonomy

Studies on employee autonomy have shown that workplaces that embrace it reap a multitude of positive outcomes. In the UK, the University of Birmingham found that employees with higher levels of autonomy in their work report positive effects on their overall well-being and higher levels of job satisfaction. Health Promotion International’s report shared similar findings but included that greater levels of autonomy often mean employees have fewer intentions to quit.

Along with data, science uncovers a lot behind the desire for autonomy. In psychology, the Self-Determination Theory, or SDT, focuses on the ability or process of making one’s own choices and controlling one’s own life. This theory differentiates autonomous versus controlled motivation, and how that directly impacts employee engagement.

A piece featured on PositivePsychology.com unpacks the theory and how SDT plays a critical role in the workplace. It states, “Managers should support their employees’ need for satisfaction, especially autonomy; this can lead to happier and more competent employees as well as better organizational outcomes.” This article also shares that “when managers are themselves high in autonomy, their subordinates are likely to be high in autonomy as well, leading to better performance and higher organizational commitment.”

In short, SDT shares that people are far more motivated to grow and develop when three innate and universal needs are fulfilled: autonomy, mastery, and relatedness.

Common mistakes to avoid

While the benefits of empowering self-determination in each of your employees are clear, there are also ways of granting autonomy that can be counterintuitive. Here are a few common mistakes to avoid:

Stepping back without giving clear direction
Allowing your employees to have free reign without clear direction is essentially sending them on a fool’s errand, and can certainly cause more stress and anxiety than necessary. A great manager knows when it’s time to step back, but also knows when to step in and be a supportive coach.

Poor communication
In order to successfully guide your employee to greatness, you need to establish a clear path of communication early on. By practicing open and honest conversations, you’ll better understand how your employee prefers to receive constructive feedback, and therefore have more effective conversations in the long run. This also alleviates some of the pressure when the time comes to have the tougher conversations.

Getting comfortable in silos
When you don’t practice open communication or offer clear direction for your employees, this often creates a sense of isolation. We’ve all made the excuse that some people simply like to “work on their own,” but without collaboration and open communication, working in silos is a guaranteed way to decrease productivity, and can often add more work to your load by adding redundant steps or working retroactively.

Tips for empowering healthy employee autonomy

Offering employees the freedom to choose how they handle their responsibilities may sound scary to some, but when practiced the right way, it can be a productivity magnet and positively impact the overall employee experience. 

Here are tips you can use to ensure both you and your employee establish the right workflow that supports healthy autonomy:

Have weekly check-ins with your employees
Stay up to date with your employees and their workload by creating a regular cadence of Weekly Check-ins and dedicated 1-on-1 meetings. This way, you are able to get a feel for how they’re doing in their role, and you’ll feel more comfortable taking a step back if you see first hand that they’re handling their work with ease. 

Having these consistent communications will strengthen the bond you have with your employees and can create a foundation of psychological safety, which is defined as being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.

Track progress with Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)
Finding the right tasks to prioritize can be a struggle for any employee, especially if the company doesn’t have a clearly defined mission or set of values. Fortunately, Objective tracking can remove that ambiguity and help you and your employee focus on the most important projects.

By putting into place an OKRs system, you’ll not only have more clarity on what your highest-leverage tasks are, but you will have greater visibility into what your direct reports are focusing on as well. These can be reviewed in your Weekly Check-ins, or more broadly in your performance review.

Ditch your annual review system
Annual reviews are a painful process, prone to the recency bias—mainly reflecting work from the most recent months— and occurring too infrequently to align with the employee’s workflow. By switching to a quarterly review cycle, you’ll have more timely opportunities to offer thoughtful feedback on your employee’s performance that you may not otherwise discuss in your 1-on-1 meetings.

These quarterly review conversations are meant to be a deeper conversation between you and your employee to help realign and intention-set for the upcoming quarter. These meetings can give you peace of mind that your employee is both growing and learning at the right pace.

Employee autonomy isn’t the absence of a present manager, it’s trusting your employees to do the job they were hired to do, and do it well. When individuals are intrinsically motivated to achieve a specific goal, it doesn’t require a micromanager pushing them to get the job done.

Your job as a manager is to guide and support your employees’ learning journey and help them find success in their mastery, and by offering them certain liberties and freedoms, you’ll help them grow at a much faster rate. 

Baili Bigham is the Content Manager at 15Five, continuous performance management software that includes weekly check-ins, OKR tracking, peer recognition, 1-on-1s, and 360° reviews. When Baili isn’t writing, you can find her binge-reading a new book or strategizing ways to pet every dog in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter @bgbigz.

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash


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