5 Ways to Give Workers More Autonomy (and Why It's Important)

by Jan Fletcher on December 26, 2012
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Do you hover over your employees? You may want to reconsider that strategy, as “helicopter bosses” typically lose out on organic opportunities for business growth. According to researchers at Cornell University, empowering workers drives innovation and expertise in small businesses. Autonomous employees are also more likely to stay on the job, reducing turnover costs.

In a study of 320 small firms [PDF], the researchers found that half operated under a traditional hierarchical management structure and half granted employees a higher level of autonomy. The businesses that encouraged autonomy grew at quadruple the rate of those with more rigid rules. Maybe it’s time you did the same and let workers spread their wings a bit.

Here are five ways to give your workers more autonomy:

1. Allow employees to exercise choice. Take a lesson from video game designers, who have studied the psychology of activity engagement. The thrill of exercising autonomous decision-making helps to explain why video games continue to fly off the shelves.

2. Let go of the 40-hour-a-week mind-set. Don’t chain employees to a desk. Having the freedom to control one’s own work flow is more in sync with human nature, according to Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, co-authors of the upcoming book, Why Managing Sucks and How to Fix It: A Results-Only Guide to Taking Control of Work, Not People. Both writers are former Best Buy executives and co-founders of CultureRx, a company that promotes changes in workplace culture. Ressler and Thompson urge managers to evaluate employees on how well they perform, not on how many hours they spend at their workstations.

3. Establish autonomous teams. Two researchers from the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington co-authored this 2011 study, which demonstrates the effects of autonomy on staff turnover. One interesting finding: Simply handing over more autonomy to the workplace “superstar” isn’t enough. Other team members should also have an opportunity to chime in on decisions. Why? Workplace teams may be negatively affected by the loss of any one team member. That includes superstars and other employees. Granting autonomy to all staff members improves worker retention.

4. Create minor decision-making opportunities. What if a particular set of job duties affords scant opportunity for increasing worker autonomy? Providing employees with seemingly insignificant decision-making opportunities has a powerful positive psychological impact. So, offer employees an abundance of choices, even if they’re small. For example, allow staff to decide on lunch fare during a brown-bag work session. Another way to empower people: Provide an explanation for why a particular management decision was made. Doing so gives employees a feeling of empowerment even when a choice was not offered.

5. Rein in workplace bullying. Nothing can diminish a sense of autonomy quicker than an overbearing boss or a tyrannical co-worker. Those with a tendency to bully others at work may feign a charming, helpful, or cooperative demeanor, but their urge to control their colleagues will still diminish fellow employees’ feeling of autonomy.

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