Increasing Employee Autonomy

This article was first published on BestCompaniesUSA’s website.

If you haven’t read Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report, I encourage you to. Its findings are fascinating. Only 33 percent of the 100 million Americans working today are engaged. These people love their jobs and employers and proactively work to make their situation, and those around them, better. Conversely, 16 per cent are actively disengaged miserable at work. The rest, 51 per cent, simply show up to work each day disengaged delivering mediocre performance.

In organizations with fewer than 25 employees, 41 per cent of those employees are engaged. In organizations with 5,000 or more employees, only 29 per cent are engaged. More than half of those surveyed (51%) are now actively searching for new jobs. Roughly 13% of employees strongly agree their organization’s leadership communicates effectively with all employee levels.

Female employees (36%) are more engaged than male employees (30%). The baby boomer generation (35%) is more engaged than the millennial generation (31%). Employees in the state of Alabama are the most engaged in the nation at 37 per cent. Employees in Arizona are 35 per cent engaged. Educational attainment has little impact on engagement. Employees with education at the high school (or less) level are 34 per cent engaged. Employees with postgraduate degrees are 33 per cent engaged. These metrics are a fraction of what the report offers.

American workplaces are changing at a pace never seen before. Advancing technologies, broader perspectives and communication free of barriers have created a nearly entirely new type of worker. Employees today desire to learn continually, to receive feedback daily, coaching and mentorship, challenging growth opportunities and more flexibility. And, they’re constantly distracted, interrupted and bombarded with unimportant information. Today, human attention is a currency you can mint. If you can hold someone’s attention, you can actively engage her, delegate to her and reap the productivity rewards.

Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, suggests that motivation and employee engagement are driven by offering employees autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy is the desire to direct our own lives. Mastery is the need to get increasingly better at something meaningful. Purpose is the craving to be in service of something larger than ourselves. From Gallup’s statistics, I wonder why employees in small organizations are 12 per cent more engaged than those in large organizations. Why do you think that’s true?

Maybe employees in the smaller organizations have more autonomy in shaping their work environment in ways that allow them to use their strengths, be their unique selves and perform at their best?

Regardless of your organization’s size, gender or generational make-up or location in the United States, I encourage you to consider these five methods for increasing your employees’ level of autonomy. Through increasing their autonomy, it is likely you’ll increase their engagement, productivity and long-term retention.

Hire People Who Have Overcome Challenges – Because our workplaces are changing at a pace not seen before, having employees who are perseverant, gritty and bring a solutions mindset are nearly indispensable. I love working with individual clients and executive teams who have hit rock bottom and developed the emotional intelligence to respect life’s ups and downs. They’re willing to face difficult tasks head on. To find these people, ask repeated interview questions about hardship and their process for climbing to where they are today. Call their references and ask about their process for brainstorming solutions with their team. How has the person helped others through difficult situations?

Establish a Deep Level of Trust – If only 13 per cent of employees strongly believe their leadership communicates effectively, there is obvious room for improvement. One of the most effective strategies for building trust is sharing (work appropriate) personal information. If you learn your colleagues’ favorite hobbies, books they’re interested in, their pets’ names, something about their spouse/partner or children or why they love working for your employer, trust can be built rapidly. Being an active listener, offering the benefit of the doubt in tough situations and limiting blame will help others feel like they have a best friend at work. This creates an inner confidence that encourages autonomy in daily tasks and choices freeing you up for increased focus on your responsibilities. If you’re interested, I wrote a white paper about communication across generations entitled Creating a Leadership Pipeline. Page 10 has questions you can ask others that may help you uncover meaningful information.

Create an Ownership Mindset – Autonomy is created when all employees act like owners. For several years, I’ve supported a Scottsdale-based, fast-growing marketing agency and “Acting Like Owners” is one of their core values. The impact this has had on their top line and how they make money has been astounding. They do a tremendous job of setting very clear expectations during the new hire on boarding process. They’ve constructed a variety of reward and recognition systems that allow for immediate and longer-term praise. Their leaders check in with their direct reports weekly being sure to discuss wins, solutions for overcoming challenges and accountability metrics for the next week. Each of these structures has encouraged employees to be free of micromanagement and far more autonomous in directing their day-to-day activity.

Provide the Necessary Resources for Success – Of the 100 million Americans working today, 67 per cent are disengaged or actively disengaged. Part of the reasoning behind that is that these people don’t have the tools, materials, equipment and other resources to complete tasks efficiently and in a way that uses their strengths. During your weekly meeting with an employee, ask what barriers to task achievement exist and systematically provide the resources for her to do her best work. Another important resource to consider is a formal mentorship-reverse mentorship program. Break down communication and knowledge transfer barriers by pairing a baby boomer with a millennial and provide them with specific topics, aligned with your organization’s strategic objectives and their individual goals, to discuss. Generational stereotyping may quickly become a thing of the past.

Allow Your Employees to Make Mistakes – According to Gallup, 51 per cent of employees are actively looking for a different job. Instead of allowing this costly turnover, turn employee mistakes into learning opportunities for the entire organization. I believe one of your best teachers is your last mistake. Encourage open discussion about mistakes made, lessons learned and alternate solutions that will help other employees make better decisions. Share these learnings with all employees transparently. Google X throws parties when their employees make mistakes and big projects fail. Watch this TED Talk to learn more. Having the autonomy to try things, take risks and shape one’s workplace is critical to the advancement of an organization and increasing employee engagement.

A meaningful quote from the State of the American Workplace report, “The one thing leaders cannot do is nothing. They cannot wait for trends to pass them by, and they cannot wait for millennials to get older and start behaving like baby boomers.” Done is better than perfect. Increasing employee autonomy requires immediate action.

Do you want to increase the percent of your workforce that is engaged? Do you desire to hold your employees’ attention? Do you hope to reap the rewards the way small organizations are?

If so, consider finding unique ways to implement one or more of the ways that allow for employee autonomy.