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Building a Work Culture of Collaborative Autonomy

The conventional corporate office is practically a thing of the past. The “side hustle” is becoming the hustle, previously distinct departments are dissolving to create more fluid collaborations between coworkers, and increasingly, people are breaking away from the traditional nine-to-five in order to pursue freelance careers. It’s estimated that by 2020, 50% of the US workforce will be freelancers

Digitalization and the shift in focus from production to creation in a postindustrial era helped pave the way for this liberation from the workplace. But there is a deeper motivation behind the trend toward self-employment, and that is our longing for autonomy. As Daniel Pink discusses in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, the secret to success isn’t the promise of wealth or fame but rather our deep-seated desire to direct our own lives. 

For those of us who manage teams, this need for autonomy can pose a challenge. How can we direct employees toward our goals and meet our performance expectations while allowing them autonomy in their work? The answer lies is forming a collective vision, establishing shared values, and endowing your team’s work with a transcendent purpose. 

A Work Culture of Control

Decades worth of research has shown that we are happier and more productive when we practice autonomy. One 1977 study even showed that residents of a nursing home lived significantly longer and healthier lives when given choices about their environment, as compared to a control group that had no control over their surroundings. 

Similar studies have tested the impact of autonomy in the workplace. In a study of 20,000 employees, researchers at the University of Birmingham, Business School have found that employees with higher levels of autonomy in their work (specifically greater control over their schedule and work tasks) reported positive effects on their overall well-being and higher levels of job satisfaction. Despite these findings, managers were unwilling to give employees greater freedom because they viewed their role as one of “control and effort extraction.” Clearly the way we do business and the way our minds work are out of sync.

Our capitalist work culture is based on incentives (usually monetary) and managerial control to produce measurable results. Unfortunately, our creative minds simply don’t work that way. You can’t incentivize innovation. In fact, when it comes to conceptual, creative work, greater incentives translate to weaker performance. When behavior is driven by external rewards, we feel that we have less control over our behavior and lose the internal motivation that yields creativity. The point is that perception of reduced or restricted autonomy triggers a threat response, which creates stress and invites uncertainty. This mindset hinders performance and limits potential. By contrast, the feeling of greater freedom increases the sense of certainty and direction. As such, for us leaders, relinquishing some control and giving those we manage a sense of it can lead both to increased productivity and greater fulfillment all around.

Structured (Not Restricted) Autonomy

Autonomy, put simply, is the freedom of choice or self-determination. But autonomy without structure is just self-will run riot. As I have experienced firsthand in my career, creativity flourishes amid paradoxes. Here at Tracking Wonder, I have to give up some control in order for my team to experiment and innovate. Sometimes, that means accepting failure, but we learn from it and creep ever closer toward our goals. 

I’m not alone in handing over the reins. Consultant Shep Hyken, author of the NYT best-seller The Amazement Revolution, gives numerous examples of corporations from FedEx to Atlanta’s The Fudgery that let their employees go “off-script” when engaging customers. The Australian software company Atlassian allows its employees 24 hours once a quarter to disregard their to-do lists and timelines in order to work on whatever they choose. The result? A whole slew of software fixes, new products, and fresh ideas that never would have surfaced otherwise. 

What makes these experiments in autonomy work is a shared sense of purpose, and an acknowledgement of each person’s contributions to a greater whole. As is often said, the best leaders don’t hoard power: they give it away. They empower their employees by allowing them to make decisions and put their unique skills toward a common goal. This psychological empowerment makes for a deeply satisfying experience, and one far more rewarding than merely meeting deadlines.

Collaborative Autonomy

So how can we cultivate this kind of structured, empowered autonomy in the workplace? Self-determination theory posits that humans are motivated by the need for competency, connectedness, and autonomy. It follows that for your team’s work to be fulfilling, you must recognize everyone’s abilities, define a collective vision of success, and give your employees the right and responsibility to determine how they can contribute to that vision. 

Before you hand over the reins, here are a few tips to truly empower your team toward collaborative autonomy:

  • Clear direction: Make sure that you are practicing intelligent autonomy, not abandonment. Spend time defining you end goal, the scope of work, and measures of success so that your employees have a clear idea of the work ahead and their part in it. Delegate tasks in order to play to people’s strengths and tap into each team member’s motivating factors so everyone shares in the enthusiasm of the project.
  • Set boundaries: Be straight about where their autonomy ends. After all, you are still their leader. While autonomy can generate a healthy sense of ownership, you need to make it clear that you hold the ultimate decision-making power. Empower and encourage collaboration by showing support for employees’ ideas but also illustrating how their work fits into the collective project.
  • Communication: Though communication is important in any kind of collaborative work, it is essential with greater autonomy. While solitude and self-direction can be extremely productive, make sure to establish regular check-ins with your team where each person can share their progress and any obstacles they may face. Guide autonomous work with constructive feedback.
  • Accept failure: Everybody makes mistakes. Granting your team greater autonomy means more experimentation and therefore, greater risk of failure. Brace yourself for it and prepare yourself (and your team) to learn from these mistakes rather than assign blame or let them bog you down.

The New World of Work necessitates a new kind of leadership that provides parameters for employees to assume autonomy with accountability and self-directed leadership.

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