The best leaders don’t horde power, they give it away — by granting autonomy (defined here as giving decision rights and freedom to operate to employees without your oversight). Position power gives way to personal power when autonomy is granted, enabling the empowered to use their unique personality/skills to achieve a desired result — a deeply satisfying and rewarding experience. The empowered feel an elevated sense of control, ownership, contribution, personal growth, pride, self-esteem, and self-identity.
Nothing is more important for a company’s culture, productivity, efficiency, and happiness then having leaders who liberally empower their employees. University of Michigan’s Gretchen Spreitzer studied 20 years of workplace empowerment research and found overwhelming benefits; higher job satisfaction, productivity, performance, and motivation and lower turnover/burnout. Think about the opposite for a moment. Who enjoys being micromanaged?
Speitzer’s research also shows that managers who liberally grant autonomy are seen by their employees as more effective, innovative, trustworthy, and inspirational.
Empowerment brings out the best in people, and the best people out.
But there’s a surprising dark side to empowering others. It’s important to grant what I call intelligent autonomy. What follows are the eight hidden pitfalls of giving autonomy, and how to avoid them.
1. A lack of clear direction.
This pitfall arises when the well-meaning leader grants autonomy but doesn’t give clear direction, operating parameters, or decision-making boundaries, making it feel like he/she effectively dumped instead of effectively delegated. The result is confusion, frustration, and poor performance.
To avoid this, create an “Agreement for Autonomy”, putting on paper the rules of engagement and operation with the empowerment. Spell out expectations, objectives, goals, the scope of work to be done, success criteria, and measures.
2. Latent reluctance.
This happens when the manager reluctantly gives autonomy, then later interferes anyway. I had a manager who granted autonomy, but who made me think “Yeah, right”, because at the first sign of trouble he forced himself right back into the picture with incessant oversight. He negated any sense of empowerment.
To avoid this, leaders should ask employees to hold them accountable for maintaining the arms-length-proximity required to maintain a sense of autonomy.
3. Recipient unreadiness.
Just because a leader grants autonomy, it doesn’t mean the employees are ready to receive it. Before turning the empowered loose with their new responsibilities, ensure they have the proper training and resources. For example, letting an employee run a project without oversight from you might require they get training in project management.
4. The reward is unwelcome.
Employees can view autonomy as nothing more than more work, especially if it comes without associated reward (the responsibility that comes from being able to make decisions and operate without oversight can feel like added work).
Solve this by explaining what employees get by taking on the new empowerment and provide incentives for them (if they aren’t driven purely by the added responsibility and freedom to operate). It’s also important here to delegate “growth work”, not just “grunt work.”
5. The delegator takes an “avoid failure” versus “assist success” mindset.
Mistakes will be made when employees are given autonomy, that’s a given. Part of the reason employees need to be empowered in the first place is to experience living through their mistakes. The key is to not overreact to those mistakes and to not give autonomy half-heartedly for fear of something going wrong. The minute you start acting like you want to avoid the empowered making miscues, the empowerment itself has failed.
Act as a facilitator, not a fixer, and let delegated decisions stick. It’s about assisting success, not avoiding failure.
6. Communication goes out the window.
It’s important to construct communication loops when granting autonomy. Autonomous employees can’t just go off the grid. Set up checkpoints at a reasonable interval (perhaps as part of the “Agreement for Autonomy”) for employees to provide updates, and get encouragement and help.
And while those working autonomously can’t forget to check in, the delegating manager can’t just delegate and check out either. Communication is a two-way street.
7. The “Sandbox Paradox” kicks in.
Empowered employees can gain a heightened sense of ownership to the point that they become resistant to input from leaders; they develop a “stay out of my sandbox” mentality.
Avoid this by making communication touch points with the empowered so valuable and encouraging that they’re seen as a reward. The empowered, despite having autonomy, should covet the chance to “invite leaders in” for help and encouragement.
8. “Operational Drift” sets in.
Sometimes, the empowered can lose the plot on objectives and goals and begin to drift. Solve this by tying a measurement tether; i.e. establishing measures on key performance goals and reviewing progress periodically.
Autonomy powers up an organization. But it takes work to give away work. It takes intelligent autonomy.