Why You Should Start Encouraging Employee Autonomy Today
Hey there! My name is Sonya Siderova, founder & CEO at Nave. I help managers deliver on their commitments, without overburdening their teams. And today, we’ll talk about incentives, motivation and the most effective approaches to empower employee autonomy (that you can apply right away!).
If you reward particular behavior, you get more of it. Is that right?
Workers in various industries are incentivized based on their individual performance indicators, which is commonly seen as a best practice. However, did you know that excessive rewards can actually result in a decline in performance?
Does Money Really Affect Motivation?
To test whether very high monetary rewards can decrease performance, Dan Ariely, Uri Gneezy, George Loewenstein and Nina Mazar conducted a set of experiments on a large group of people in the U.S. and in India.
They were given various tasks from memorizing strings of numbers and solving puzzles to physical tasks such as shooting a basketball.
There were three levels of rewards to incentivize their performance:
- People who performed well received a small monetary award
- People who had a very good performance were given a medium monetary reward
- People with outstanding performance got the sizeable monetary award
That’s exactly what the traditional motivation scheme within organizations looks like. The top performers are rewarded and the low-performers take constructive feedback.
But does this approach really work? Is the money prize what motivates our employees?
The study revealed that as long as the tasks involved only mechanical skills, motivating people with bonuses led to pretty good results. The higher the incentive the better their performance. That makes sense.
However, if the tasks were more complex and required conceptual creative thinking, the results were the opposite. The most significant rewards actually led to the poorest performance!
This conclusion seems quite counterintuitive. Once you get above rudimentary cognitive skills, the higher the reward, the worse the performance!
So, if it works exactly the other way around, what is the role of money in employee motivation?
The best use of money as a motivator in the workplace is to pay people enough so they don’t consider money an issue.
That’s simply it.
What Is Autonomy in Today’s Workplace?
And now that the money conversation is off the table, what is it that actually motivates our employees?
The one thing that ultimately leads to better performance and deep personal satisfaction is autonomy.
And today, autonomy in the workplace is more important than ever before.
The hybrid work model is the new reality. And more often than not, management is gradually looking for ways to bring employees back to the office.
“We’ll let you work from home a couple of times a week”, is what I’m usually hearing. But, what’s the problem with this statement?
Autonomy means your employees have the ability to be the primary decision-maker.
They have to make the decision of where and when they do their work.
We should allow our team members to come into the office and work from home when they need to. Give them the ability to make the decisions that best fit them.
Now is the time to pay careful attention to the effect of your choices on organizational norms. Use the opportunity to let the hybrid virtual model shape a new shared culture that provides stability and belonging.
The Role of Autonomy on Employee Motivation
“But Sonya, if they are not here, how do I know they are working?”.
Instead of worrying about what they are doing, look at their results. This mindset shift has the potential to make or break your employees’ motivation.
And here is some advice I wish someone had given me years ago.
Start from a place of one hundred percent trust. Assume, by default, that your employees are here for the right reason and trust that they will deliver their best work.
Autonomy is what makes employees feel responsible and accountable for work outcomes. Workers who have the authority to make their own decisions are self-motivated, engaged and inspired to overdeliver.
Self-aware, free-thinking employees are more confident and much more invested in your business. They are setting out to achieve their goals. The inevitable result is a boost in productivity!
And nothing, and I mean nothing, empowers employee autonomy more than giving your people unprecedented trust and support.
Trust and support is what encourages autonomy at work.
This management approach ultimately boosts our workers’ motivation and helps us sustain employee retention rates of over 90%!
Are You Observing a Lack of Employee Autonomy? Here is What’s Going Wrong
Now, here is the trick. Your attempts to empower employee autonomy may go totally wrong if there is no clear direction and guidance on the decision-making process in your company.
The last thing we want is to make our employees feel like they are effectively abandoned instead of effectively delegated. This will only lead to confusion, frustration and certainly a decline in performance.
Here’s another hint: unlimited freedom is less effective than autonomy with well-articulated constraints.
If, even after all your efforts, you still observe a lack of employee autonomy, what’s missing is a decision-making framework that aligns the team’s results with your business objectives.
The explicit process policies that come with the framework should enable self-managed employees who can make business decisions on their own. That’s exactly how you set directions while still giving your teams the flexibility to experiment.
Here at Nave, we encourage acts of leadership at all levels which ultimately helps us continuously improve our internal processes.
And if you’d like to explore the step-by-step approach we used to get there, I’d be thrilled to welcome you to our Sustainable Predictability program.
How to Turn Your Workforce into a Well-Oiled Machine While Empowering Employee Autonomy
So, how to get your entire workforce working like a well-oiled machine while empowering employee autonomy?
Let’s explore the realm of flow management.
When you think about your work in terms of flow, your focus moves from managing individuals to managing the work itself.
What this means is that individuals’ performance is not what matters anymore. With flow management, we focus on achieving our business outcomes instead.
Now, it’s up to our employees to decide how to do the work and collaborate with each other to hit their targets.
By adopting a flow-based management approach, you directly communicate to your team that you trust and respect them, and you encourage them to exercise leadership skills.
And that’s probably the most important ingredient of building autonomous teams.
Letting your employees self-organize around the work, set their own explicit process policies, and enable them to improve continuously is a powerful motivational booster.
So, Where Do You Start?
The first and probably the most important step is to build a strong foundation for your flow-based system. It is essential to do this right from the very beginning to be able to get the most out of your data and ensure your improvement efforts are paying off.
Now, there are a lot of implementation details in that first step. That’s why we decided to make the first module of our Sustainable Predictability program completely free of charge for one week. In this module, you will learn literally everything you need to know about how to set up the foundation of your system design.
Here is your action item: Go through the lessons and use the workbook at the end of the module to implement the concepts in your own context. Then, send me your work at email@example.com. I’ll review it and I’ll personally give you my feedback.
Alright my friend, thank you so much for your time. If you find this article valuable, please share it on your social media channels. My goal is to help as many managers as possible to build autonomous teams and enable a workplace of trust, respect and appreciation. I’d be grateful if you spread the word.
I wish you a productive day ahead and I’ll see you next week, same time, same place for more managerial goodness. Bye for now!
Meet the Author
Sonya Siderova is a passionate product manager and a driving force behind Nave, a Kanban analytics suite that helps teams improve their delivery speed through data-driven decision making. When she's not catering to her two little ones, you might find Sonya absorbed in a good heavyweight boxing match or behind a screen crafting a new blog post.