The only 4 things you need people to do in your business and why giving them more freedom works

There’s a lot of evidence for the effectiveness of freedom or autonomy as a motivator of the kind of performance and attitude that business leaders want to see (see ‘Drive’ by Dan Pink for some of it), and it’s not a new idea. Indeed, back in the 1960s autonomy was the focus of many job redesign efforts.

Even after we recognise the potential of autonomy, it’s often difficult for us to see how we can give people real autonomy in our own organisations

But even after we recognise the potential of autonomy, it’s often difficult for us to see how we can give people real autonomy in our own organisations while still delivering consistently to our customers. So at best we pay lip service to autonomy and as a result we never see the benefits that research says should be achieved.

I like to think that as a manager my style was always fairly empowering and supportive. But I only ever empowered people within the constraints that our employer placed on me (and them). So there was little flexibility for them around hours and I was always keen to see that the work I’d delegated got done because I had to know what was going on when my boss asked.

I was forever looking for ways to help my team and the organisation achieve their potential and forever being frustrated by the progress I’d made. It was only when I saw for myself the impact that really (some might say radically) increasing empowerment in organisations has on the results that I realised how much bolder we need to be when we design the way we work.

Human beings are pretty amazing and the ways most employers need them to behave is often what intrinsically motivates people, e.g. co-operating with others, problem-solving, being creative, pleasing the customer. Where does it all go wrong?

The way I see it, there are only 4 things that we need to think about when we’re designing the way people work in any organisation, that’s how we support them to:

  • Focus
  • Achieve
  • Learn
  • Work together

But there are many choices to be made about how we help people do those things and we often don’t recognise all the likely implications of them. Too often we create ways of working that actively inhibit rather than enable people.

Many of the so-called ‘best’ practices, are based on the assumption that people can’t be trusted

Most management practices are self-fulfilling prophesies and many of the standard ones, including many of the so-called ‘best’ practices, are based on the assumption that people can’t be trusted. Research shows that people will behave in a way consistent with the way that they are treated, thereby validating the assumptions that support the practices we choose (McGregor, 1957).

So as long as we assume that the people can’t be trusted or aren’t capable of working autonomously, we implement management practices based on that assumption. And then we don’t see the behaviour change we need to give us confidence to make a change, so introducing more autonomous practices feels like a huge risk. But there are many examples of where autonomy is working.

I’ve recently been working with a large and very successful digital team in a public sector organisation. The whole team is operating Agile methodologies including collaborative, self-organising teams with clear goals. They operate within a structure that on paper is very hierarchical. I asked the team what motivated them about the way they work and the answers included autonomy, but also the responsibility they had been given for their work and the fact that, no matter what a person’s place in the hierarchy, there was real equality and freedom to challenge throughout this large team.

Similarly, a small but growing owner-led business that I’ve worked with has introduced lots of informal flexibility around work and a process for face-to-face colleague feedback to support personal development, which not only requires trust but also develops greater trust between members of the team.

Within both of these organisations the management practices that support people to focus, achieve, learn and work together are all based on the assumption that people can be trusted and they have been proved to be self-fulfilling prophesies.

Consider carefully your choices about how you help your people to focus, achieve, learn and work together

If you’re looking to introduce more autonomy in your team or adopt more agile ways of working, start by examining your own assumptions about people. Then consider carefully your choices about how you help your people to focus, achieve, learn and work together to ensure that they align with that.