Does your workplace have the kind of culture where employees take initiative with decision-making? Or do employees feel pressure to get permission on how to move forward? Companies want to give employees freedom but fear that too much autonomy could result in chaos. Or, looking at it from the other end: All organizations need some structures and processes in place to ensure accountability, but those same structures and processes can easily stifle independence and, subsequently, innovation.
Business consultants sometimes have summed up this tension with the phrase “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission,” meaning that ambitious employees should boldly try new things without worrying about whether or not they have the authority to do so. But this attitude is problematic, especially in larger, more established corporate structures. It’s certainly not an ethos that companies want to build a culture around.
Perhaps the problem is that the "forgiveness vs. permission" idea is too binary and thus leads to cultures that tend toward one extreme or the other. At one extreme are strict, rule-based cultures where seeking permission is expected before taking any action, which can stifle creativity and halt decision-making. On the other is an environment where employees frequently take action, but without considering accountability or future consequences. So how can a company avoid the extremes? How can it build a culture that balances autonomy and accountability?
Encourage employee engagement through communication and responsibility
For leaders, shaping an organization’s culture is paramount. Leaders can promote employee engagement and innovation by encouraging responsible autonomy. Responsible autonomy means giving employees a degree of autonomy, but doing so within well-defined mechanisms that encourage collaboration and foster accountability. This can be done in several ways:
Create space for autonomy
A study by Atlassian reports that when employees have choices (go into the office or work from home), 83% of them have a positive outlook on their company’s culture. Only 47% of employees who lack control share this perspective. Simply having the choice of where to work helps foster positive feelings about the organization—but giving employees autonomy need not stop there.
Creating space for autonomy can happen, for example, by executing a shift from manager control to employee project ownership. This shift can start with the manager defining boundaries (avoiding potential chaos) and giving the employee decision-making authority for the project from start to finish. So, instead of handing an employee a completed brief, management could develop a set of guidelines that meets the company's goals and trust the employee to rise to the occasion.
Inspire clear communication
To empower employees, open and clear communication is vital. Leaders should encourage team members to express their ideas, ask questions, and voice concerns. An environment where employees feel their opinions are valued encourages responsibility. In other words, knowing how to create psychological safety at work helps teams be vulnerable. And, vulnerability is a key component in creativity, collaboration, and innovation.
Present a set of acceptable options
Instead of rigid procedures, allow for options that provide some flexibility. For example, employees like to be given options for choosing their working hours. Instead of enforcing a strict 9-5, offer the opportunity to come in from 7 to 3, or 8 to 4. The employee is going to be happier at their job when they know they’ll be off in time to pick up their kids from school or get to the gym before the after-work rush hits. This framework aligns with what the company needs while giving the employee the freedom to choose their schedule. Everybody wins.
Hold employees and management accountable
With autonomy comes accountability. If an employee or a team is taking responsibility for a task or a project, define the goals of that task or project along with how success is to be measured. Objective measures help to keep employees and teams accountable without micromanaging every step of the process. Along with these measures, encourage a culture where successes are recognized and mistakes are acknowledged. The goal throughout the organization should be to learn from both.
Promote constant learning
Provide formal opportunities for skill development and growth. When employees feel their skills are valued and expanded, they are more likely to act with responsibility and purpose. When employees are given room to learn and develop, they are happier, they’re more productive, and they stay at those companies longer. According to HR Digest, companies that invested in employee development in 2022 saw a 58% increase in retention, and overall showed a 24% increase in productivity.
Make collaboration and teamwork a given when it comes to company culture. Let employees know that while they have autonomy, they are part of a collective effort, and their actions should consider the broader scope of the organization.
Benefits of the third way: Encouraging responsible autonomy
Naturally, doing all of the above takes some work. Company cultures do not change overnight, even if policies and practices do. So the question for many leaders is whether or not these changes are worthwhile.
There is a huge body of literature on the benefits of autonomy, as well as the need for structure and accountability in organizations. The main benefits that arise when both are in place are certainly worth striving for:
- Increased Engagement: When employees are given a sense of ownership and responsibility, they become more engaged in their work. In fact, research by Effectory has found that 79% of autonomous employees are more engaged in their work compared to employees who lack autonomy.
- Enhanced Creativity: Advocating for responsible autonomy can unlock employee creativity and innovation. When employees have the freedom to devise their own ways of working, they tend to be more intrinsically motivated and engaged. In turn, they become more likely to spot opportunities for improvement and innovation.
- Improved Decision-Making: Empowering employees to make decisions within a defined framework can lead to quicker and more efficient problem-solving. By putting those decisions within the context of organizational goals and measures, organizations can help improve employee decision-making over time.
- Higher Job Satisfaction: Employees who are trusted and given autonomy tend to experience higher job satisfaction, leading to a longer employee lifecycle. Autonomy gives employees room to grow while preventing the stagnation that tends to happen when a person has the same role for a long time. Likewise, employee satisfaction tends to be higher when there is clear accountability with recognition of the work done.
Encourage autonomy, clear communication, accountability, and collaboration to empower your employees
Again, autonomy and accountability might seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. However, the idea behind responsible autonomy is that a balance between the two can be achieved. Finding that balance allows teams to thrive in a dynamic, engaging, and innovative work environment.
Building a workplace culture where this occurs won’t happen overnight, and it will take a bit of training on everyone’s part. To explore how our award-winning microlearning solution can help your employees feel valued, trusted, and accountable, ultimately becoming a powerful asset in moving your organization forward, schedule a consultation with Blue Ocean Brain today.