As a business owner or leader, giving your team autonomy has a key role in optimising performance.
Autonomy is a major motivator. It allows your team to become leaders themselves. Take responsibility for their actions. Form creative solutions to problems. Be more productive and perform better.
But what is autonomy and why is it important?
Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan formed their theory of Self-Determination in the late 1970s. The theory states that humans have three innate psychological needs – competence, autonomy and relatedness.
When these needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive and happy.
When they are suppressed our motivation, productivity and happiness decrease substantially.
Research conducted by Deci and Ryan (as well as others in the field) have found that it’s autonomy which is the strongest of the three.
Granting or taking away autonomy has the biggest impact on motivation and performance.
For example, in a study of 320 businesses – half of which granted workers autonomy and half relying on top-down autocratic control. The businesses with autonomous workers grew at four times the rate of the control-oriented businesses and had one third less staff turnover.
Another study found that autonomous motivation leads to greater understanding, better grades and more persistence in schools.
Autonomous Motivation “involves behaving with a full sense of volition and choice, whereas Controlled Motivation involves behaving with the experience that comes from pressures and demands towards specific outcomes from forces perceived to be external to the self”.
Giving people autonomy over what they do can be seen as the best way to positively impact motivation and productivity.
However, there are other reasons why you need to give power to your team.
Today’s World is Complex
In 1980, half of the world’s 4.4 billion people were either so poor that they were cut off from the rest of humanity or lived in a country so oppressed by its regime, that they had no connection with those outside it.
However, during the 80s, 90s and 00s the shifts in society and technology mean we now live in a world where things which were once separate have the ability to bump against each other, sometimes with unexpected results.
The decreasing cost of computing power. Digitisation of huge amounts of information. The ease with which content can now be communicated across vast distances. And increasing wealth of the human population as a whole. These all mean that there are far more possible interactions between the parts of the systems on which the world operates.
I’m not just talking about technological systems but economic, social and all others as well.
The fact that there are now so many more possibilities for interactions, means it’s far more difficult to predict the outcome of situations.
In other words, what used to be complicated has now become complex.
As a result of this unpredictability, it’s increasingly important for organisations to be aware of and respond to changes in their own environment and the world around them.
Today’s world can be described well by a military term – VUCA – which stands for Volatile, Unpredictable, Complex and Ambiguous.
In a VUCA world, reactivity is key. So how do we adapt as quickly as we can?
One of the answers lies in giving power to our team, creating autonomy and allowing people to make decisions in the field. As Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter concludes in her research on giving power to employees in the workplace – “the degree to which the opportunity to use power effectively is granted to or withheld from individuals is one difference between those companies which stagnate and those which innovate”.
As a leader, you can’t hope to be able to predict the future yourself, there are now too many variables in play. You must give power to your “troops on the ground” who can feed back information as it arises, giving the ability to be more reactive to situations.
However, it’s not enough to quickly receive information about today’s ever-changing situations.
Improvements in technology allowing instant communication around the world, has actually lead to decision making becoming slower.
In his book Team of Teams, General Stanley McCrystal says that during the Joint Special Operations Task Force effort in Iraq starting in 2003, the real-time information being fed to central command meant that Leaders felt they needed to withhold authority on decisions of great importance.
As a result (during the campaign) the hierarchical decision making process sometimes caused them to miss small windows of opportunity and that the “aggregate effects [of delayed decisions] were crippling”.
McCrystal concluded that the wait for a rubber stamp to approve matters wasn’t resulting in better decisions.
He wanted to shift the process to one where the “best possible decision could be made in a time frame that allowed it to be relevant”. And therefore gave the decision-making power to those on the ground who could act quickly.
Before this was implemented the Task Force struggled against an Al-Qaida force with little formal structure that could change and adapt at a moment’s notice.
By allowing those in the heat of the battle to make decisions for themselves, they changed the course of action and began succeeding when previously they were losing.
The New Zealand All Blacks rugby team has also created a way of giving power to their players. It’s credited with making them the most successful team in World Rugby.
Not only do they allow the players to take control of training in the lead up to a game, but they’ve created a team of leaders – each responsible for decisions on and off the field.
When this was implemented, coach Graham Henry gave several senior players each a distinct portfolio of responsibilities – such as leading particular aspects of the game on-field, social organisations, new-player mentoring and community relations.
In a typical week before a game, management will give a few pointers during a Sunday evening review meeting. This meeting is led by on-field leaders. Then over the course of the week, more of the responsibility goes to the players to decide what to work on in training and the intensity of the practice sessions.
Come match day, the coaches don’t need to give a rousing speech. As Henry says “the time before they run out on the field, is their time. They’ve got to get their own minds right and settled on the job”.
He’s quoted as saying that “duel leadership was very important to our [All Blacks] success, perhaps the reason for that success”.
By having your team make decisions for themselves and not withholding power, they can become more reactive to situations as they crop up. Deciding by themselves to take the best course of action possible.
Our now complex world brings unpredictability. Being able to react to situations in real time is essential for success. Trusting your team with the autonomy to make their own decisions in all situations will not only motivate them, but will future-proof their performance.
Giving team members the power to opt-in to projects allows autonomy of a different kind. This is the operating system on which many of the tools you use everyday have been created and improved.
A 2015 survey found that 78% of companies were running at least part of their systems on Open Source Software (OSS).
OSS is one of today’s most important technological advances.
In 2007, a website called SourceForge.net (which caters to open source software developers) listed 150,000 open source projects and nearly 1.6 million contributors. OSS has crowd sourced the creative spirit of its community by allowing individuals around the world to collaborate with each other to bug-fix, improve and expand feature sets.
Companies are now not only running their systems on OSS but opening the code of their own systems to the OSS community.
Two of the world’s biggest companies – Walmart and ExxonMobil – now release the code of their systems to the OSS community as they see it as the best way to improve and develop them.
Why is OSS so successful?
It can only be that there is an open invitation to contribute.
All you need to be able to have an impact is a knowledge of code. There’s no prejudice about who is and who isn’t qualified to contribute. The approval process for whether your efforts are adopted are transparent.
It’s the ultimate creative outlet for people with a passion for code and forming elegant solutions to problems. As a Microsoft engineer wrote in a 1998 internal memo leaked to the press “The ability of the OSS process to collect and harness the collective IQ of thousands of individuals across the Internet is simply amazing..”.
Opting-in has also famously given birth to some of Google’s best products (such as Gmail and Google Maps) which grew from pet projects developed during 20 percent time.
20 percent time was the ability for Googlers to spend twenty percent of their week on whatever project they wanted. The very premise of 20 percent time is that each person opts-in to their own project or someone else’s to which they can add their skill set.
Google has since stopped 20 percent time for employees. However, this doesn’t mean that innovation has stopped at the company.
Google is now at a size where it needs to focus operations on the many products it has created. Employees are still encouraged to work on a side project, but must simply check with managers first before spending company time on it.
It isn’t just recent software innovations which have come about by allowing employees to opt-in to a project.
Post-It Notes (invented via by a failed experiment to produce super-adhesive glue) was originally a side project for scientist Art Fry at 3M in the 1970s. At the time, 3M policy allowed employees to spend 15 percent of their time on projects of their choosing.
Post-It Notes has been one of 3M’s most successful products. They’re now available in six hundred different forms, in one hundred countries around the world.
You might be having doubts about the potential inefficiencies of giving your team the power to opt-in to whatever project they want, taking valuable focus away from their day to day tasks and functions.
But it’s important to note that Atlassian (a company which has had 20 percent time for employees in place since the early 00s) reports employees using substantially less than the time allocated to them as “they didn’t want to let down their current teammates by abandoning ongoing projects”.
The company credits the ability to opt-in as a key reason for their growth to a turnover of more than $450 million since starting in 2002.
Any inefficiency an opt-in policy could bring will be heavily outweighed by opportunities that come about from self-directed time, which otherwise would have been overlooked.
Also, your team will be fully engaged and have maximum productivity. Simply by you (the leader) having the courage to give them enough power to spend at least some of their time working in a way which we were all born to be – curious and self-directed.
Do You Have The Courage?
My challenge to you (as a leader of any kind) is to have the courage to give up power to your team. Allow team members to be autonomous in what they do, how they do it, in the decisions that they make and how they direct their time.
Leaders in the examples above (from the worlds of business, sports and the military) have all had the courage to give up their power. Then they have seen their team’s performance grow.
All of these individuals display what is known as Level 5 Leadership (a term coined by Jim Collins in the book Good To Great) – those who have the humility to ask their team to collaborate with them for optimal performance.
Do you have what it takes to give your power away and be a Level 5 Leader?