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I understood
07 Jun, 2021

The perks of autonomy

The perks of autonomy

Leaders often struggle to let go of control and end up creating a negative effect in employees’ motivation, ultimately harming their performance. They may have been getting away with it in the past but it’s no longer sustainable, especially in the highly dynamic and complex transformations that organizations face nowadays. That is when autonomy comes in, not as a "magical wand but as one of the keys to the kingdom”. If you are willing to get in, you can start by building a shared understanding within your teams. That provides the grounds for implicit guidance, fostering autonomy and, consequently, motivation to create better and faster solutions.

The workplace revolution

As the 21st century progresses, transformations are growing more complex and the nature of economic activity is also shifting from algorithmic to heuristic. Whereas the former relates to tasks in which you follow a set of established instructions down a single pathway to one conclusion (e.g., accounting or manufacturing), the latter relates to tasks in which people must devise ideas and strategies, experiment and create hypotheses until a solution is found (e.g., creating new products or innovating existing processes).

Back in the 90s, most jobs were still performed based on algorithmic tasks, but today’s reality has changed entirely as heuristic tasks are showing increased dominance. If organizations wish to keep a sustainable business, they can no longer rely on the same old products or services, or even the processes in which they operate. This demand for creative solutions and innovation has pointed the path towards heuristic tasks, which in turn has brought a new challenge for leaders and team managers.

The upgrade needed

This shift in the nature of professional activities have raised concerns around motivation and how important that is to ensure people perform at their best. Daniel Pink, the author of six provocative books about business and human behavior, highlights that due to this change, the motivational approach of "carrots and sticks” (i.e., reward-and-punishment system) can be devastating to the motivation of heuristic workers in the long term. In his book "Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us”, he explains that this happens because most motivational systems are still being designed to promote mainly external factors like extra money (carrots) or fewer benefits (sticks).

In contrast, Daniel Pink proposed a new approach called Motivation 3.0, the upgrade needed to meet the new realities of how we organize, think about, and do what we do. This approach focuses on the internal side of motivation - "the drive to do something because it is interesting, challenging, and absorbing” - and is based on three key factors: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. In summary, it aims to provide more autonomy to workers in order for them to unleash their mastery upon communication of the overarching sense of purpose.

Turning teams into planes flying autonomously

Motivation can be sought after from different perspectives, but we will focus on one of Motivation 3.0 key factors – autonomy. Leaders often understand its importance although they tend to fail when it comes to putting it into practice. As Deborah Ancona and Kate Isaacs sharply described in their HBR article, "leaders often say they want to empower autonomous teams and free the front line to innovate, but they also fear the chaos that might be unleashed if they do”. They easily fall into the trap of wanting to control how everything is done, which ends up killing creativity, breeding mistrust, causing undue stress, and demoralizing the team.

This takes us to the question – how can companies bring autonomy into their workplace without compromising the necessary control? In today’s dynamic world, it’s merely impossible for leaders to get fully involved in every single initiative and keep track of daily progress. Instead, they need to create a common place of agreement where everyone has a shared understanding, turning the teams into "planes flying autonomously". How? By investing to keep all team members on the same page about the purpose and the processes required to get things done, it creates room for people to work without the need for constant guidance.

Where to go from here?

The good news is that it’s possible to keep things aligned and under control while providing people with autonomy. If they know where to go and how to get there, that is enough information for them to make all the smaller decisions on a day-to-day basis. If you provide them with a set of standard operating processes, that is the ground for intuitive operation and implicit guidance. Ultimately, you have normalized ways of working that allow teams to be more nimble and high-performing.

At the end of the day, autonomy can have a double effect on teams and people. On the one hand, it boosts motivation. On the other hand, when pursuing autonomous teams through a shared understanding, it builds the conditions for better performance. Now, are you ready to give up (a little bit of) control and experience the perks of autonomy?

  1. Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. Riverhead Books. New York, NY.
  2. Ancona, D. & Isaacs, K. (2019). How to Give Your Team the Right Amount of Autonomy. Harvard Business Review.

João Pedro Borges, Product Support