Managing a variety of personalities, work styles, and individual expectations on your team can be challenging, to say the least. Although good teams typically include a variety of backgrounds and skill sets, those characteristics can also make it frustrating to strike the right balance between autonomy and direction.
On one hand, you may have employees that like being left alone to complete their work, and receive feedback only once the project is done. Alternatively, some team members prefer being given clear direction with specific milestones set and checked along the way.
In either case, knowing how to provide both autonomy and direction to a team is a valuable managerial skill that can be the difference between meeting goals and missing them. Understanding how to meld these two concepts together can help managers support each unique member of their team in a way that promotes the best outcome for all.
Why Team Members Value Autonomy
In the post-pandemic workplace, employee autonomy is a hot topic — and one that evokes myriad strong opinions. In the past, employers from a variety of industries gave their direct reports specific tasks that fit into relatively rigid timelines.
Indeed, the industrial revolution and the requisite “assembly line” approach to production relied on an employee’s ability to repeat the same designated task over and over again. As the digital age progressed and employees’ days became less defined by punching in and out, “to-do lists” during the workday changed. This trend culminated in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic normalized remote working across the world.
Build Trust with Your Team
Fast forward to the present: many companies now opt to give their employees greater flexibility in selecting tasks and creating timelines while at work. Simply put, the belief is that self-selection fosters more buy-in and better creative output. Some studies have shown that autonomy over project ideas in particular results in higher performance.
For teams and individuals that are allowed some freedom in choosing what they work on and when, workplace satisfaction and business efficiency improves. In the modern office workplace, autonomy is not really something that should be considered optional; indeed, most employees expect and crave some measure of it during their workdays.
Trust fuels autonomy, and managers can vary their approach towards employees with different skillsets and needs. Believing that employees will set their own goals and get the work done — regardless of how it’s completed — indicates a level of respect that views everybody as intelligent, independent adults working together to further the growth of the business. Combining autonomy with a level of management direction sets the stage for effective team-building long-term.
Attract and Retain Better Talent
The modern job market is highly competitive, and companies have a difficult time attracting the right candidates for skilled roles. Applicants with impressive resumes didn’t build up those portfolios by accident; typically, these individuals are self-starters and value autonomy when it comes to their work lives. Offering that freedom as an inherent part of the job speaks volumes to candidates that may have several job opportunities in the pipeline.
Autonomy also allows companies to retain higher levels of talent. Workers that look forward to working on projects they had some hand in selecting report better job satisfaction and increased engagement with company initiatives. Absence rates decrease, and employee churn is minimized. Having self-sufficient employees also gives managers more freedom to pursue their own goals and spend time on higher-level — and ultimately more valuable — needs, like strategizing and analysis. Micromanaging rarely benefits anyone.
Providing the Right Direction to Team Members
Ultimate autonomy, however seemingly desirable, typically results in frustration on the parts of managers and team members alike. It’s difficult to meet business objectives without having some sort of guidance on how to get there. Directions provided by a manager set teams up for success and also create accountability for the goals made at the project’s outset.
An important benefit of direction-setting by a manager or team lead is the elimination of busy work. When clear expectations are set and employees know what top priorities are, tasks that don’t bring much value to the business become less important and carry less justification for being worked on. It also better ensures that management and team output are in alignment.
Few things are more frustrating for managers and their direct reports than a meeting in which key objectives have been completely missed because the team lacked clear direction. Perhaps counterintuitively, employees actually experience improved satisfaction rates when they receive direction that is well-defined and not overbearing. Understanding how to walk the fine line between micromanagement and office anarchy is a key skill for leaders in any industry.
Although some managers may fear that giving direction sounds more like barking orders, offering guidance at the outset of a task or project can actually contribute to a positive relationship between team members.
Having kick-off meetings or briefs that outline expectations and delineate desired results provide reasoning for certain strategies and more effectively get employee buy-in before work begins. Knowing exactly how to succeed at a task empowers employees and eliminates the confusion that inherently comes with mixed direction and unclear expectations.
Striking a Balance Between Autonomy and Direction
Both autonomy and direction are important components of an effective team. Subsequently, leaders need to understand how to balance these two strategies so that their employees have the best chance at achieving organizational goals while building satisfaction in the workplace.
Although the concept of offering both autonomy and direction to employees seems counterintuitive on the surface, good managers know that finding the right balance between each actually results in better outcomes. This delicate “secret sauce” can ultimately mean the difference between furthering team objectives and tracking poor performance in the long-term.
Know When to Require Managerial Approval
One great way to balance both autonomy and direction as a manager is to clearly delineate the items that need your involvement and those that don’t. Providing this type of direction sets boundaries for teams that otherwise may be hesitant to pursue ambitious ideas. It also reassures employees that your sign-off indicates approval of their work and an extra pair of managerial eyes on a project.
Developing a growth mindset within the workplace is a much-discussed topic in leadership circles, and striking a healthy balance between autonomy and direction can help foster this type of thinking within companies. Including both a sense of independence and accountability encourages employees to learn from their mistakes and be transparent with both successes and failures.
Learn How to Delegate
Another strategy to balancing these two opposing ideas is via effective delegation. Delegation implies that a higher level of authority will ultimately be checking work upon completion. However, it also empowers direct reports to accomplish delegated tasks on their own terms. Placing trust in team members encourages trust between workplace peers. This pattern, in turn, fosters better self-management and increased confidence in decision making on all organizational levels.
Creating a structure based on delegation and trust also sets managers up as guides and resources rather than authoritarian figures. Instead of fearing admonishment, employees can rely on managers for feedback, a relationship that rewards team members for being honest when they face challenges and encounter roadblocks. Positive reinforcement for creative problem-solving also incentivizes other employees and departments to lean into the autonomous/directional dynamic that results in noticeable achievements company-wide.
Provide Clear and Specific Direction
Finally, employees with autonomy in accomplishing tasks benefit from direction that is clear and specific. Providing deadlines and parameters allow team members to work within prescribed boundaries while solving problems and completing work. This type of leadership can also encourage healthy work-life balances as employees can better manage their time and priorities each day.
Clear instructions also result in less wasted time for both managers and team members. Rather than having to redo tasks, employees can use the requirements and timelines provided ahead of time as a roadmap for successful completion. Similarly, managers can cut down on difficult performance reviews and assignment rejections if their teams are showcasing better work from the outset. One of the more frustrating parts of being a team member is when work has been done, and managers are displeased with the results. Concise and direct guidelines provided at the beginning of a project minimize these types of unpleasant feelings and result in a more empowered workforce.
Knowing When You’ve Hit the Right Autonomy/Direction Balance
When it comes down to it, autonomy and effective direction-giving are both key aspects of leading successful and efficient teams. Managers that perfect this style benefit by creating a dynamic where employees regularly and valuably contribute to collective goals. Employees benefit by being able to simultaneously strengthen their own skills and help the company reach its goals.
In the cutthroat world of modern business, fostering inclusive and forgiving workplace environments isn’t easy to do. However, managers who understand the importance of offering autonomy and specific direction can help build successful teams — ones that don’t sacrifice individual well-being to accomplish goals.
Time and time again, research has shown that motivated employees are more satisfied while at work and produce better overall results than unhappy workers. Forging a healthy balance between direction and autonomy is a great place to start when building teams that tick each of these boxes and retain strong talent long-term.