How much do you hate being told what to do?  It’s one of my pet hates – tell me what to do, and I’m likely to do the opposite, even if what you’re telling me is what I was going to do anyway.  Except… can’t really do that at work, if you want to keep the job.

Control is the flip side of autonomy. We’ve all come across those managers who keep a close eye, micromanage, make a song and dance if you’re even a couple of minutes late getting in to the office.  You might even be the kind of manager who likes to keep a close eye on your team, afraid that they won’t get on with it if you don’t.

I once worked for a manager who kept all the bigger picture information, about the key strategies and objectives, in his head.  He only shared what he thought he needed to, jobs were allocated as and when he wanted them done, usually with detailed instructions.  He’d be checking how we got on.  As a result, no one showed any initiative, and waited for his approval before getting on with stuff.  In turn, he’d be really frustrated that no-one showed initiative, setting up an unvirtuous circle.

Daniel Pink, in his book, Drive; the surprising truth about what motivates us, says there are three things, autonomy, mastery and purpose, and that autonomy is the most important.  There are four ways we can exercise autonomy

  • The work we do
  • How we go about it
  • When we get it done
  • Who we work with

Different people will prefer autonomy over different elements, and it may be a little more difficult to have control over who you work with; you may have inherited a team, or joined an existing team.  There’s still some room for creativity though.

Why is this important?  According to Pink, the old fashioned style of management is ineffective at motivating us.  He gives examples of a results only work environment, where employees can decide for themselves how they go about their work, and when it’s done.  Night owls can work at midnight if they like.  They are accountable for results of course, but the results are typically an improvement on the old style of management – a 35% increase in productivity in one example.  Another successful initiative is allowing 20% of time to be spent on a side project.  Employees are allowed to spend one day a week working on a project of their choosing, working with who they’d like. Google is maybe the best known of these employers, and has made a great deal of money from side projects like gmail, and other organisations have also had success with this.

​What issues does this raise for you? You can harness the power of autonomy for your team if you're a manager, and will all reap the benefits.  If you're only responsible for you, there are ways you can craft your work to develop your own autonomy.  If you want some ideas how, please leave a comment below.

You can also find out more about Daniel Pink's book here.

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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