Trust and Autonomy: The Two Essential Qualities That Drive Employee Performance
Jane is a rising star in the IT department of her organization. Over the past few months, she has consistently completed all of her assigned tasks and introduced multiple new tools and processes to her team that has helped improve their velocity.
Joe is an average worker in the customer support group of the IT department. He routinely completes all of his tasks with plenty of time to spare. But he often feels stuck at the end of the day with nothing to do but catch up on his social media.
In this scenario its easy to see that Jane is the higher performer. But it is less apparent why. What is motivating Jane to go above and beyond?
These two scenarios parallel two different stages of my professional career. When I served in the Navy I felt like Joe. All of my assignments were clearly spelled out all the way down to the fine details of how they should be completed. I was a cog in the machine. When the job was done, I turned the machine off.
Once I separated from the military and transitioned into doing software development for Our Daily Bread and now Elevator Up I became Jane. I always had a clearly communicated backlog of work, but I was allowed to think freely about how the work would be accomplished. This changed my mindset about work. I realized I had so much more value to add.
The main difference between Jane and Joe was not their skills and abilities, it was the leaders they worked for. Jane had a leader who was what author Liz Wiseman calls a multiplier. Joe worked for a leader who was too afraid his employees would make a mistake and embarrass him in front of his superiors. The differences between these two leaders are two qualities called trust and autonomy.
Simon Sinek, author of the book Start With Why describes trust in a leader saying, “The only way people will know what you believe is by the things you say and do, and if you’re not consistent in the things you say and do, no one will know what you believe.” At Elevator Up it is important that we as a whole team are consistent in the way we do business. We are a small team, so everyone can feel when someone does something inconsistent with our core values. We also don’t have time to micromanage, so we have to trust each other to all get our jobs done according to our core values.
The key here is honesty in our communication. One of the core values of Elevator Up is communicating with radical candor. Everyone trusts that we all respect each other, so we can communicate freely without reservation. If a team is always communicating with transparency, it's much easier to be consistent.
Wiseman’s book Multipliers describes a good leader as “[liberating] people from the oppressive forces within the corporate hierarchy. They liberate people to think, to speak, and to act with reason. They create an environment where the best ideas surface and where people do their best work. They give people permission to think.” Permission to think. That’s the key difference between when I acted like Joe and when I acted like Jane. Another one of our core values at Elevator Up is ownership. We recognize that every team member is good at what they do. Therefore we trust they will do a good job, and we expect that they will speak up, be confident and take responsibility. Former Navy seal Jocko Willink calls this Extreme Ownership. When everyone in the organization feels like an owner, it's easy to take responsibility for the successes and failures of the organization.
Autonomy requires trust from the organization, and trust requires the freedom to act autonomously. Willink says, “Our freedom to operate and maneuver had increased substantially through disciplined procedures. Discipline equals freedom.” Discipline is the link between trust and autonomy. Because our team is highly disciplined in the core values of candid communication and ownership we are trusted to act autonomously in ways that we believe will not only better ourselves but the whole organization.
~ Thomas, Software Developer