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Dec 7, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Whether your goal is to increase employee motivation, engagement, or morale, one of most effective actions you can take is to give employees more autonomy.

This means giving them more room to make decisions, to think for themselves, to “own” their jobs. In short, it’s allowing them to think — and act — like a small business owner.

Doing this will be very good for your bottom line.

In Daniel Pink’s excellent book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Really Motivates Us, he cites a study revealing the powerful role satisfying this fundamental human need has on employee performance.

More autonomy = Faster growth + Higher retention

In the study, conducted at Cornell University, half of the 320 small businesses studied demonstrated old fashioned command and control management practices, while the other half gave employees autonomy.

Those businesses that gave employees autonomy:

  • Grew four (4) times faster than the businesses using command and control management.
  • Experienced only one-third of the turnover than their command and control counterparts.

More autonomy = More work + More initiative

Furthermore, research conducted by BlessingWhite, and published in A Study of Voluntary Effort in the Workforce, revealed that “Responsibility for one’s work” was the No. 1 driver of discretionary effort.

In other words, if you want employees to work as hard as they can and go “above and beyond,” the most important thing you can do is give them more autonomy.

More autonomy = Greater resilience

Command and control environments that do not allow employees to think for themselves, make their own decisions, and try new things — i.e. that don’t allow autonomy — create an atmosphere that fosters “Learned Helplessness.”

Employees in this environment learn that thinking for themselves and acting on their own is pointless, so they don’t even try. Instead, they passively await orders.

In contrast, when employees get the chance to think and act like small business owners — i.e. they have autonomy — they continuously build greater confidence and resourcefulness. They continuously build greater self-efficacy and the perception that they can “handle it”… whatever “it” is.

Because of this, these employees possess far greater resilience. Resilient employees not only can handle the demands and pressures of a “do more with less” workplace more easily, they also respond more resourcefully to major changes and challenges.

Resilient employees are “Can Do” employees. In the words of Southwest Airlines, these employees demonstrate a Warrior Spirit.

10 things that managers can do

So, if you want more motivated, engaged, and “Can Do” employees, do this:

  1. Share this article with your fellow managers, so everyone understands the importance of giving your employees autonomy.
  2. Share this article with your direct reports and then ask them where they would like more autonomy in their jobs.
  3. If you question an employee’s ability to handle greater autonomy, let them know your concerns, why you feel that way, and what they can do to remedy this. Negotiate a game plan that includes “baby steps” so they can develop a track record that demonstrates their increased responsibility, decision-making ability, and/or skill level.
  4. Ask your employees if they have the tools, training, knowledge, and resources to “run their business” well.
  5. If you tend to micromanage, stop.
  6. When you give an assignment, whenever possible let employees decide on the “how.”
  7. Give employees the opportunity to explore new ways of doing things, both within and outside their department.
  8. If an employee comes to you with an idea that you don’t think will work, but the downside of it not working is minimal, share your perspective but consider letting them try their idea. With minimal downside risk, even if it doesn’t work, the engagement-enhancing benefits will far outweigh the cost.
  9. If an employee tries something and it fails, treat it like the great learning experience it can be. Debrief them; ask them questions about what they learned and how they can use this learning in the future. The last thing you want is for your employees to fear thoughtful experimentation and innovation.
  10. Recognize and celebrate employees who experiment and generate new ideas.
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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