I know the best way to do my job.

Next up on our tour of intrinsic motivators – Autonomy. In the simplest terms autonomy is the ability to do what you want, the way you want to do it. Various dictionaries define it using the term “self-governing”. Autonomy is a powerful intrinsic motivator because human beings want to make decisions for themselves. Whether expressed by a toddler insisting she choose her own clothes or a political revolution that removes the yoke of oppressive government, the desire to “self-govern” is innate, intense and irrepressible.

In the workforce autonomy means giving people the flexibility to make decisions regarding HOW they do their jobs. Of all intrinsic motivators, autonomy is the most difficult for businesses to embrace. Granting employees the ability to “self-govern” is a direct contradiction to the objective of many managers – control. To embrace autonomy, management must trust that loosening control will result in better outcomes. The larger a company gets, the more it struggles with this concept. After all, there are processes to be followed, consistency to be maintained, and liability concerns. Jobs should be definable, transferrable, and cross-trainable. By dictating the exact method for completing work we can ensure all the demands are met.  Control to my employees?  How will I maintain order in what could become a chaotic mess?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that for most companies the bigger they get, the more impersonal they get. This impersonality (that really is a word) afflicts first the employees and then the customers. As employees are reduced to processes and procedures the humanity of their roles is removed. They no longer interact with customers as individuals, instead they deliver management-approved, scripted responses for dispensed to the masses. Customers quickly sense when they are dealing with human automaton and they do not like it.

When management decides to grant autonomy to their employees, they will give up some control. It is imperative we understand that they are only giving up that which is better controlled by the employee. Let’s use a journey metaphor to illustrate how this works.

Management determines the:

  • Destination = Goals
  • Vehicle = Products
  • Fuel = Budget
  • Schedule = Deadlines

The team determines the:

  • Route = Tactics

If you reach your goals, on time and on budget, don’t worry about the exact route your employees took to get you there. The employees doing their jobs know how to do them far better than management does. Let them use their knowledge to execute in the most efficient manner. Additionally, when they determine the “route” they tap their own creativity and are far more vested in the outcome than if you micromanage every little detail. 

Several years ago, to reduce costs, we decided to outsource our customer support to a partner company. The partner company did not share our commitment to exemplary service, and it showed in the declining satisfaction of our clients. Three of our senior product implementation specialists, Raphael, Paul, and Carina, asked to direct a pilot plan where service was moved back in-house. We gave them the green light to move forward and then watched as they completely transformed our customer support department. They built an entire team of like-minded individuals who worked together to create a dynamic customer-focused team that operates with little oversight from management. The benefits of this decision are too numerous to count, but at the very least include happier clients, better retention, more referrals, and a happier support team. By giving Raphael, Paul and Carina the autonomy to execute we are able reap rewards far greater than if we tried to dictate every decision regarding a process that we do not understand nearly as well they do.

Companies spend countless dollars trying to recruit talented and knowledgeable employees, but then often destroy the ability of those very employees to contribute by stifling them with excessive rules and controls.  Granting autonomy enables them to become experts in their own jobs because they can explore the most efficient and effective way to get the job done. Not only will this result in better results, but also contributes to a sense of mastery (another intrinsic motivator) as they get better and better at something important to them. It also creates a greater sense of accountability as they commit to a course of action that THEY created.

Hire a team that you believe can do the job, then LET them do the job.

Seth Preus

Seth Preus is an advisor to Mivation, and the creator of both Racing Snail and Leaderboard Legends.  As a thought leader, he uses his 25 years of experience in sales, software development and business ownership to change the equation from “How can I get my team to perform?” to “How can I get my team to WANT to perform.”