5 Ways to Integrate Employee Autonomy Into Your Culture

A new customer experience manager had just started at GreenPal, an online marketplace in Nashville, Tenn., which connects homeowners with lawn-mowing professionals. Then, right out of the starting box, the manager faced a big assignment: Gather new online reviews from customers.

Related: 6 Ways to Encourage Autonomy With Your Employees

The assignment came from CEO Bryan Clayton, who said he initially outlined for the manager his ideas on how to do this. Then he stopped: “I realized that I wanted [the new manager] to ‘own’ the project,” Clayton said via email. “I simply told him that the objective was to get 20 new reviews for every city we operated in, but he needed to figure out how to do it.”

The employee surprised the CEO with the plan he developed, even surpassing his expectations. His solution? The manager found out what types of dogs customers had and sent them dog bones as an incentive to fill out online reviews.

Not only did GreenPal earn a lot of online reviews, it also got great social media coverage, as customers shared their cards and dog treats on their Instagram and Facebook pages. From that, Clayton said, he learned a valuable lesson.

“Put your people in positions where they have to own the results,” he wrote, “and if they are unable to deliver, then odds are, you don’t have the right person on your team anyways.”

Clayton’s is a simple philosophy — employees want autonomy. In fact, an April 2017 study from the University of Birmingham found that employee autonomy leads to higher levels of job satisfaction and makes a positive impact on their overall well-being.

Related: How to Stop Micromanaging Your Team

Here’s how employers can integrate employee autonomy into their culture:

1. Hire smart.

Steve Jobs was known for being a strong leader, especially when it came to bringing in the right talent. He famously said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

Nick Bulcao, the founder and CEO of Airspace Technologies, a technology-enabled logistics company specializing in time-critical shipments and based in San Diego, said he takes the following wise words to heart: “We allow everyone’s voice to be heard and allow them to make their own decisions,” Bulcao wrote via email.

“The reason we hire the people on our team is because we trust that they are able to do their job without a lot of oversight from upper management.”

If a company has a strong hiring process, it can be confident about encouraging employee autonomy. When hiring at your own company, look for talent that understands what independence means and how to apply it in the workplace.

“I wanted to create a culture that encourages team members to think on their own,” Bulcao wrote. “My team knows that it is okay to fail, which relieves all pressure off the employee, allowing them to enjoy their time at work and focus on moving the company forward.”

2. Embrace the “Ask forgiveness, not permission” philosophy.

Everyone has heard the saying, “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” Adam Lyons, the CEO and co-founder of The Zebra, a car insurance comparison website based in Austin, encourages this mindset in all his employees.

“I want everyone to make a conscious decision in their work to move the company forward,” Lyons said in an email. “If this means moving quickly and without direct permission, so be it. Red tape suffocates growth, creativity and problem-solving. I want to eliminate it entirely.”

As long as employers provide their team with the right resources and support, those employees can be given free rein to work as they see fit.

3. Focus on quality training.

Brian Forrester, the co-founder of Workshop Digital, a digital marketing agency in Richmond, Va., believes in “the three T’s” for encouraging employee autonomy: training, trust and time.

“Since we can’t speed up time, we focus on the first two,” Forrester wrote. “We have training in place to get employees up to speed on best practices so we can be confident they have the hard skills necessary to work autonomously. We also provide ongoing support through other team members and through a manager.”

By instituting the right training, Forrester said, Workshop Digital found it could let employees be autonomous after about three months on the job. This kind of forward thinking instills in employees a sense of ownership and genuine interest in the growth of the organization.

4. Openly discuss career plans.

Many employers motivate their staff to strive for better performance by laying out career plans. This also helps encourage employee autonomy.

Dillon Chen, the director of curriculum at ProSky, a talent-management software company based in Irvine, Calif., started as an intern and, thanks to management, worked his way up.

“Setting career pathways allows us to pick where we want to go in the company ranks as we grow,” Chen said in an email. “I got to sit with my manager to plan my path based on the company’s needs, but also with my interests and existing skills in mind. These discussions give employees specific milestones to hit through the progression: skills to obtain and goals to work for; and they specify incentives for completion.”

When employees and their managers have a formal discussion about what those employees want to become within the company, they’re empowered to work toward their future. They can work and learn, so they can reach their professional goals, while also learning the value of independence.

5. Give them more choices.

Employers often decide on a lot of aspects of an employee’s job. However, some things, like choosing when and where to work, are better decided by the individual.

Then there’s benefits: Tools like Checkpoint HR give employees more freedom because it allows them to choose which type of health benefits is right for them.

Employers first determine what they want to offer and how much they want to contribute.The Checkpoint Choice feature then gives employees access to a private exchange portal to shop for an ideal benefits package that works for them.

Related: What Happens When You Empower Employees Instead of Micromanage Them?

From hiring and training, to benefits and professional development, employers clearly have ample opportunity to integrate employee autonomy into their culture and keep those employees satisfied — and on the job longer.

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