Boost Engagement Through Autonomy

Series: leadership April 10, 2017

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink explains that Autonomy is one of three key factors in employee engagement and overall happiness. This statement is backed up by numerous experiments in which people who have an artificial but perceived control over their environment report lower levels of stress and higher performance than those in a control group who have no illusion of control.

When you lead people giving your authority to make a decision to someone else sends a strong message that you trust them. Trust means employees who feel safer, less stress and more control. It is the ideal set of conditions for optimal performance. Now imagine if every person on your team were performing at a higher level. This will happen if you dole out the power to make decisions like it were a form of engagement currency. So why doesn’t everyone just do it?

Maybe we’re just all out of ideas. So here’s a list of things you might consider letting individuals or the team as a whole make decisions about:

  • Coffee, snacks and other “perks”
  • Usernames, email addresses, profile pictures
  • Training or professional development programs
  • Tools, software, and technology
  • Make and model of cell phone, laptop or other equipment
  • Which workstation they sit at, where the team is located or workspace layout
  • Working hours, flex time, remote work
  • Work process, quality and continuous improvement
  • Project design, implementation and commitment
  • Project priority, strategic direction
  • Project team composition and roles
  • Hiring of team members
  • Communication with stakeholders, customers or the public in general
  • Salaries

I’ll bet at some point on this list you started cringing. This list starts with some simple, innocuous ideas and grows into decisions that have greater impact and consequence. In order to achieve the results we desire we believe more control is required over the things towards the bottom of the list. Most people might be in full cringe mode right around the middle and a few control freaks may have cringed at the thought of letting their team make decisions regarding the coffee station!

Fear naturally takes over when we imagine losing control of the results we desire. We equate the loss of authority to make a specific decision with loss of control in general. This fear is what holds us back from letting people make their own decisions. It is what we need to get past in order to dole out autonomy and reap the benefits.

It might sound hard to believe, but you can be in control of the results without having the decision making authority. In fact, there’s an entire management practice called delegation that you can master to get good at this. As leaders we have to get past our fear of losing control. We have to get good at delegating.

So give it a try, start with something simple like giving your team full control over the coffee station. Frame it as a self-development exercise in delegation. You can set a budget, some constraints and maybe even provide some coffee competency training. But let them make some decisions about the type of coffee, whether it’s drip or K-cup and maybe even how they will divvy up the responsibilities of making sure there’s inventory and keeping it clean. Most importantly, trust them with the decision and let them own it.

This small little piece of autonomy is a baby step forward to full engagement. I’ll bet they even want to pitch in a few dollars each week to get what they really want.


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