When we interviewed Stephen Bevan, head of HR research at the Institute for Employment Studies, for this feature on autonomy, he expressed his frustration at the attitude of some line managers today. He said:
“We’ve been talking about the importance of autonomy for 40 years, yet there are still some managers that think their job is to control every aspect of the way their employees do their jobs, because they can’t be trusted. That’s just not a sustainable solution to the problem of improving performance and productivity in 2022.”
We asked him for his advice to line managers on cultivating a culture of autonomy which promotes employee wellbeing as well as productivity.
Tip 1: the role of the manager
Bear in mind that our research shows that one of the key factors that makes a difference to employee productivity and mental health is whether they’ve got a manager who is prepared to give them a bit of leeway, trust and autonomy. There are clear correlations between these factors.
Tip 2: Trust
If your employees don’t feel trusted, or if they feel like they’ve got someone looking over their shoulder constantly, this prevents a sense of trust and autonomy.
Tip 3: communication & coaching skills
If you find yourself in a people-management role after excelling at your trade or profession –for example as an accountant or engineer– question whether you need to learn more about how to get the best out of your team. Often managers in this situation haven’t had the opportunity to develop the necessary communication or coaching skills and so use a default management style of ‘do what I say’ rather than managing by consent.
Tip 4: Encourage ideas
Encourage your team to question things, and put forward better ways of getting the job done. If you don’t, you’re cutting off a supply of good ideas.
Tip 5: Listen
When you ask for their input, listen and act (if appropriate) on it. People will not be engaged if they feel they are not truly listened to. They will simply put their head down and get on with the job, but won’t be truly engaged in what they are doing.
Tip 6: Churn
If you’re working in a sector with a high churn rate try and dig into the data and work out: what is it about the nature of the job that could be causing this? Quite often I hear managers in some sectors say“well, that’s just the turnover rate we have to tolerate in this industry” but my question is: do you really? I’d be willing to bet that improving job design that improving job design, control, autonomy, discretion, task variety and challenge would help increase motivation and reduce quit rates in most teams.
Tip 7: Purpose
Remember that research clearly shows that employees who don’t have any control or autonomy in their jobs have an elevated risk of anxiety and depression. If you provide work for people which is engaging, has an animating purpose and which they feel they have a stake in and some control over, not only do they perform better, but they are also healthier and want to stay in the job longer.
Tip 8: Focus on output
Evaluate the performance of your team members on what they produce, rather than how long it takes them to produce it. So, even if you’re working in a call centre, be more interested in whether a team member has resolved a customer’s problem, rather than just measuring how many calls they make in an hour.
Tip 9: Avoid micromanaging
If you train people well and give them resources and trust to get on with their work, rather than prescribing every step of the process and micromanaging them, they will find new solutions to problems.
Tip 10: Job design
Think about the way you put a job together, looking at how the tasks in a job are linked and assess the extent to which they give people a sense of achievement. If an employee is just one link in the chain and never gets to see how that link fits together with others they may have less of a sense of engagement, attachment or meaning to the job. Being able to witness the whole process is much more rewarding and satisfying. That’s why currently there’s a lot of interest in how job design can help managers improve autonomy in jobs, giving people more opportunities to stretch themselves and develop new skills.
Tip 11: Invest your time
If you give your staff more autonomy you can improve productivity, performance, retention and wellbeing. So why would you not invest more time thinking about how you could improvement your management practices to promote more autonomy?
Tip 12: Encouraging autonomy is the sign of a strong manager, not a weak one
One of the great writers on motivation and performance at work, Frederick Herzberg said ‘if you want people to a good job, give them a good job to do’. For modern managers, allowing employees more autonomy is a sign not of weakness but of strength.
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