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Do Your Employees Really Have Autonomy?A common conversation I have with small business leaders centers around the idea of autonomy. How much authority is given to employees to do their work the way they see fit? Autonomy in it’s most simple definition is independence. How much independence do employees have?

In my experience, leaders and employees often answer this question very differently.

In many small businesses, autonomy is a selling feature for potential candidates. One of the cool things about these environments is that things are moving so quickly that leaders often don’t have the time to micromanage. They also know they need employees who have expertise they don’t have to get the work done which naturally leads to more autonomy. Especially in the very early stages, these environments are rich for highly autonomous work.

But often, the independence gets stripped away.

Maybe it’s by the leader who wants to be copied on every email. Or the one who wants his employee to “check in” at least once a day with project updates. There are always reasons why this is necessary – at least in the leader’s mind.

Or the leader who gets angry when an employee decides to work from home instead of the shared space. The employee does all the work and is available throughout the day via technology, but the leader is upset they aren’t in the office. No performance issues, just an idea that everyone should work from the office.

Now, let me be clear. There is nothing illegal about having rules around being copied on every email or never being able to work from home. A little defeating maybe, but not illegal. A leader can create almost any rules they want for their business.

But you can’t have those rules and then say that you support an autonomous environment where you trust employees to get the work done.

It reminds me of the Margaret Atwood quote from “The Handmaid’s Tale”.

“A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.”

Many environments I have both worked in and walk into these days are a bit like a maze. The leader has sculpted visible and invisible walls that employees are not allowed to venture outside of. Some of these walls are necessary, others, not so much. Either way, the more the walls, the less the autonomy. When we do culture work in an environment with these walls, the gap between the level of autonomy a leader thinks they give and the level the employee feels they have is often quite large.

It’s a question worth asking of autonomy is important to you and your recruiting efforts. How much autonomy do we really offer and do our thoughts about what we already offer line up with our employees? It is my thought that autonomy is only going to become more and more important in the years to come. Thinking about where your business sits on the subject now and ensuring those thoughts are carried out into action can only help the business in the long run.

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