I could tell before he opened the door to the car that something had gone wrong at school. My ten-year-old gets in the car, sits down, and scowls. I ask him what’s wrong and he doesn’t answer. I ask his sister what is wrong and she says she doesn’t know.
I’m afraid to have to tell him that we are now headed to do something that he does not like to do, which is to go to reading lessons. He loves his reading teacher, but he just hates to read. Especially when he is in a bad mood.
Sister goes to reading too, but for the exact opposite reason. She loves to read, so when she goes to reading she gets to do something she likes.
I try to think of a way to tell him he has reading for the afternoon without World War III breaking loose. I remember a podcast by the Neuroleadership Institute that I had recently listened to about how to return to the office well. In it, it talked a lot about the value of giving people autonomy, of giving people choices.
So, I asked my son, “Would you like to go to reading first or second?”
“Second!” he says “Definitely second.”
I drop sister off at reading and take him home for a snack and a little break. His mood begins to change, and by the time I take to reading, he is happy. His belly is full, he got to make a choice- a kind of choice that is usually made for him- and he was able to hit the reset button.
Can it be this simple at work? Can just giving people choices over things make a difference? The research and brain science says it sure can.
Take for example studies (here is one in particular) that cite workers given the autonomy (permission) to decorate their own cubicles saw up to a 25% increase in productivity.
COVID has exacerbated the need for autonomy at the office for two reasons 1) Many of us have tasted autonomy in work by being able to work from home (or from anywhere) and we don’t want it stripped back. Taking autonomy away activates all kinds of stress in the form of a threat response. 2) COVID created a lot of stress from uncertainty, where there weren’t a lot of choices, and people need to be able to step back from that stress. One way to do this is to allow for choices or continue to allow choices around where, when, and how work gets done. These reasons and responses are two sides to the same coin.
So what can you do as a leader to help cultivate autonomy at work?:
- Guide by principles not by mandates. The first thing to think about is making increased autonomy a driver in your decision-making as an overarching principle of when, how, and where work gets done and then go from there. It’s not a mandate of: Everyone must work from home now! Instead, different industries and situations may govern different ways of offering autonomy, but it can be present in any workplace at any time. Going to one extreme that seems to offer autonomy may actually limit people’s choices by making a mandate based on what one segment of your workforce wants, but isn’t reflective of what all want. Doing this actually fosters the opposite of autonomy by limiting choice and control through a one size fits all approach. Create guardrails for decision-making to allow for autonomy instead of one-way streets.
- Ask people what they want. In order to determine what autonomy might best look like at your place of work, ask people what they would like to see when it comes to having choices over their work. Is where, when, or how the work gets done a priority for your workforce? How can you design principles that support those needs?
- Experiment based on the research. Based on the global body of research out there and the research gathered from your workforce, design an experiment that increases the opportunity for choices for your employees. Decide your hypothesis (for example: If employees are allowed to work from home or at a place of their choosing outside of the office two days per week, productivity and satisfaction will increase), then decide how you are going to measure to see if your hypothesis is correct (for example, how will you measure productivity and satisfaction if you aren’t already?). Then, run the experiment for a period of time and see what outcomes are achieved. If you have favorable results, expand the choice offerings throughout your workforce. If not, try a different hypothesis and experiment.
- Don’t be afraid to change. What may work now, may not work in the future. Be in tune and open to change by listening to your employees and having a learning mindset through experimentation. Then, don’t be afraid to change if needed to continue to foster autonomy at work.
Resisting the urge to command and control as a leader at work (and as a parent) pays dividends. It always has, but it is increasingly needed as leaders think about how to effectively transition after COVID in order to continue to retain and recruit top talent. Because top talent does have choices, and they will exercise the need to have it by going elsewhere if you don’t foster autonomy at your place of work.
How do you and how will you foster autonomy in work?