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Autonomy and management

I talked last time about Daniel Pink’s findings on motivation – autonomy, mastery and purpose.  I’m going to focus this time on one of these a little more – autonomy. I’m going to consider how autonomy depends on your manager’s working relationship with you and to illustrate this, I’m going to talk about some of the managers I’ve worked with.

 

More than twenty years ago, I was a newly promoted manager with a team of ten staff.  I went on the civil service two week management training course, but the things I’ve learned about managing people since then lead me to believe the course wasn’t much help to be honest.

 

However, I must have instinctively known that one of the important roles of a manager is to protect your team from pressure from above, because I spent a lot of time doing this.  Unsuccessfully, on the whole – I put this down to inexperience, but at the time, it was merely a source of stress.

 

Well, not just inexperience, but the fact that, after a while, my working relationship with my manager deteriorated, and she bullied me for a sustained period of time.

 

With the benefit of hindsight, she was probably under a lot of pressure herself to deliver. She had an office of 50 staff to manage, targets to meet, laws to enforce, public money to account for.  And had probably had as much effective training for this as I had.

 

I moved on.  Well, I wrote to HR and demanded to be moved ASAP.  They obliged, but as far as I know, did nothing to deal with the problematic management style.  Staff at this office had no autonomy because the manager’s style was to rule with fear and intimidation, and expect things to be done the way she wanted.

 

A couple of years later, I took voluntary redundancy from the civil service – one of the best decisions I ever made.  After a further bad experience in a job I wasn’t suited to, my confidence plummeted.  I took a part time, low paid, low skilled admin job with a charity project.  Seemed ok to start with, but one day, after I said something to a telecom engineer while he was fixing a telephone line, my manager told me it wasn’t my place to do this, she was the boss, I was just the paid help. Stunned, I didn’t understand why she would speak to me like that.  But after that, she picked holes constantly and micro managed.  I didn’t stand for it for long this time, and moved on again. No autonomy in the role, so I exercised it by leaving.  To a slightly better paid, but still part time role, and thus began my career in fundraising.  A couple of really good managers and a break to go full time at university later, and I’ve learned a lot.

 

Moving on, things changed and I found myself working for another manager.  This was a strange one – everyone liked this manager; so did I to start with, but towards the end of my time at that organisation I began to feel something wasn’t quite right.  I felt I’d been set up to fail a couple of times, but it wasn’t something I could exactly put my finger on.  Maybe I was just imagining it?  I’m still not 100% one way or the other.

 

I left, and worked for a small charity this time.  The head of fundraising was off sick for five months, and I had a difficult working relationship with some members of the board of trustees.  Whilst I had a good degree of autonomy in the day to day work, the support and appreciation wasn’t there, even though some trustees said it was.  It didn’t feel authentic.  Especially once I was made redundant unexpectedly.

 

So what does autonomy in the workplace look like? Let’s think about what the really good managers did.

 

  • They listened to my suggestions.  Even if they disagreed and overruled me, demonstrated that they were willing to consider my viewpoint. (Autonomy)
  • They thanked me for things, generally showed appreciation for my contribution
  • Gave me positive feedback on performance. I don’t ever remember being told off for mistakes; I’m sure I must have been, but obviously it was done in the right way. (Autonomy again – I was allowed to learn)
  • Gave me the opportunity to develop and grow in the roles, encouraging me to attend training and become a member of the professional body.

 

 

I’d love to hear your views – what does it mean to you to have autonomy in your workplace?

 

About the Author Lindsay Milner

Lindsay is the owner of Silvern Training. Before that she had a very varied working life, doing everything from admin, volunteering, sales, teaching, training, fundraising, management and chairing a board of charity trustees. Now wants to change the world of work by improving workplace cultures so that people can look forward to Monday mornings. Also likes to support individuals to speak up, be better listeners and to take action.

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1 comment
Dr Electra Soady says 19th November 2015

I agree, Lindsay, with your final points about autonomy, and managers’ behaviours which contribute to a healthy workplace. And what you wrote prompted me to think further of my experiences of both being an employee and a manager over the years, and here is what I have come up with:

For me, autonomy for an employee is to be confident that your judgement will be trusted. This means that your manager has confidence in you to take the correct decision and to act, without having to ask their permission. This presupposes, that he or she is also competent and/ or knowledgeable enough to:

a) communicate to you the purpose of the organisation/ the business;
b) make clear exactly what role you are expected to play in helping to achieve this;
c) indicate that they would trust you to do the right thing
d) and finally, allow you room to learn and make reasonable mistakes in a supportive way.

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