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Ann-Marie Barlow

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Five ways to nurture autonomy across your workforce

What do we mean by autonomy? Ann-Marie Barlow discusses autonomy’s role within the workplace and how it can be used to improve employee experience

As the world of work continues to shift and adapt – with many organisations being inundated with candidates, and employees’ priorities shifting after a tough few years – employee experience may be more important than ever.

In this article we explore the topic of autonomy and how managers can nurture autonomy to improve employee experience. 

What do we mean by autonomy?

Autonomy in the workplace is about power and freedom. 

Freedom pertains to the amount of freedom that people feel they have to make decisions, and shape and plan their work. Whereas power deals with the power dynamics within the organisation:

  • Who holds the power?
  • How much power are they willing to give away?
  • The consequences of relinquishing power, and  why people might be worried about letting go.

Why do we need to think about autonomy?

The CIPD states that one of the most established influences on employee motivation is autonomy. Being empowered to shape your job and your time at work makes it more meaningful and enjoyable.

So, the more we think about getting the balance right with autonomy, the more likely it is that colleagues will thrive in their role.

Respecting differences

Another important thing to think about is how comfortable people feel with autonomy. 

Many organisations I work with are grappling with the challenge and opportunity of multi-generational workforces. And, as a manager, the comfort level of power/autonomy/freedom will be different not only to employees on an individual basis, but also due to the generational divide of employees’ lived experience of work. 

Not everyone will be comfortable with the same level of autonomy and that’s okay.

Using the graphic below  and being careful not to make assumptions you may find that ‘traditionalists’ and ‘generation Z’ employees may have very different working styles, based on different life experiences.

Not everyone will be comfortable with the same level of autonomy and that is okay. Your role as a manager is to work with the different preferences you have in your team and tailor your approach accordingly. 

Now that we’ve discussed the concept of autonomy,  let’s move on to what we can do about it? 

1. Find out how people experience you 

Ask your team how they think things are going. In the spirit of authenticity,  I had never asked about this until I started to write this article so I put together a quick survey for my team:

This short survey has helped to depersonalise the questions that often play on my mind:

  • Am I getting in the way? 
  • Am I providing enough direction?

2. Explore the root cause 

As well as asking for some feedback, it can be helpful for us to think about what drives behaviour in ourselves. 

There will be times when we might want to be closer to a project or a piece of work, and at this point, it’s helpful to ask yourself one of my favourite questions:

What emotion is driving this behaviour?

It can be helpful for us to think about what drives behaviour in ourselves.

This tip can work twofold; it can help you to delve into what might be driving behaviour in yourself and provide an opportunity for you to bring perspective to your motivations, and can also be used when you are thinking about influencing. Here’s an example:

If we imagine a manager who is very directive and controlling, an emotion that’s driving this could be fear. Fear of getting it wrong. Fear of not delivering on time. Previous experiences of ‘getting their fingers burned’.

Rather than focusing and preparing for how you will manage the behaviour (directive, controlling) think about how you could work with the emotion that might be driving that behaviour. 

For example, bringing a risk and issue analysis to the meeting, or bringing a detailed project plan and a suggestion for how often you could get together to check in on this project, could serve you better than planning for how to deal with the controlling behaviour. 

3. Delegate with purpose  

I remember very clearly a lightbulb moment I had a few years ago when I came across a sketch note by Dr Hayley Lewis on the three levels of delegating.

It’s something that’s stuck with me ever since, and I use it regularly in my leadership, consultancy, and coaching practice:


Delegating isn’t about just passing work over. However, without purpose it can sometimes feel like that. Delegating with purpose is about how you tailor your approach. 

As you can see from the sketchnote ,  thinking about the level of control you need to have each time can help you think about how to delegate and consider important things such as:

  • How much direction should I provide?
  • How often is reasonable for progress updates?
  • What boundaries or constraints do we need to consider?

4. Encourage accountability 

As I have a portfolio career, I have the opportunity to work with different organisations in a variety of ways. It also means I get to learn from different organisations. I spend a day a week working with PTHR (People & Transformational HR) who are a self managed organisation. 

We have a Slack channel (you could use MS Teams) called daily check-in where we say hello, check how each other are doing and also, importantly, share what we are up to that day/week.

I’ve introduced this practice with other teams that I work with and not only does this help provide transparency about what people are working on, it also helps to share where your priorities are, so if people are waiting for something, they can see what else you’re juggling.

5. Enhance your 1:1s 

We know it’s important to have regular one-on-one time with direct reports, but do we always use that time wisely? Here’s when I know I need to make changes:

  • We jump straight into status updates
  • I talk more than my direct report does
  • We struggle with what to talk about

Over time, I’ve introduced some practices that have helped me improve 1:1 time. 

I try to start 1:1s with an intentional question that acknowledges that this isn’t just a status update:

“What would be most helpful for us to focus on in our time together today?”

This doesn’t mean I can’t bring things to discuss, but it shows that I am not intending to lead the conversation.

I’ve also introduced Trello boards to capture our 1:1 content. These are driven by the employee, not me, but I can access them to add topics for discussion. 

It also helps us to keep important discussions on track, such as:

  • What’s going well?
  • What support do you need?
  • What are you learning?

I’ve put together a demo board here if you are interested in trying this approach.

There’s also a great article from Harvard Business Review on how to make your 1:1s more productive. 

What we’ve covered 

So, before we finish, let’s recap on what we’ve covered in this article.

  • Finding out how people experience you when it comes to autonomy.
  • Getting to grips with what emotions influence our behaviour.
  • How we can adapt our approaches to delegating.
  • Introducing daily practices to encourage accountability & transparency.
  • Being intentional in 1:1 time with direct reports.

What would you add? What did you find useful? How do you work on autonomy with your team?

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