Leaders have many responsibilities, and when it comes to fulfilling those responsibilities, fostering an environment of autonomy and leadership on their team might feel like a lower priority item on their leadership to-do list. However, this can be misguided thinking, and leaders can go a long way towards empowering their team to not only fulfill their roles successfully, but to also help them realize their career potential through creating and constantly nurturing a strong autonomy- and ownership-centered team environment.
What Is Autonomy?
Basically, autonomy is the opposite of micromanagement. When team members are given autonomy in the workplace, they are free to complete tasks and responsibilities in the ways that work best for them based on experience, skills, and knowledge. Autonomy requires a high level of trust—trust that tasks will be completed on time and successfully—between leaders and employees. Autonomy gives control to team members, and depending on the organization, this could mean control of choices in roles, clients, responsibilities, projects, collaborations, and so on.
Autonomy does not mean that employees work in isolation, as collaboration and input from leaders are crucial for success, and it does not mean that employees have no boundaries where their work is concerned. In a true autonomous organization, the priority is the work getting done, not so much how it’s done.
What Is Ownership?
Ownership is about responsibility. The owner of a house is responsible for all aspects of that house: Upkeep and the financial obligations to keep the house safe and continuously appreciating in value. The owner of a company is responsible for all aspects of that company: Financial, organizational, productivity, HR, and so on. When an employee is given ownership in their role, they are given the responsibility and trust to make sure they complete tasks successfully, on time, and within the outlined parameters to accomplish their part in the overall goals of the company. With ownership, the employee works harder to avoid failure, takes pride in their work, and owns their results.
While autonomy and ownership go hand-in-hand and do have some similarities, the main difference is that autonomy gives employees the freedom to complete their work, and ownership holds them responsible for completing that work.
Benefits of Team Autonomy & Ownership
When your team members have a high degree of both autonomy and ownership, you, your team, and the entire organization reap some incredible benefits. Leaders who strive to make autonomy and ownership a priority can expect to experience increases in the following:
- Levels of trust: Trust is crucial to any relationship, and when employees are allowed autonomy and ownership, trust will increase for both leaders and team members.
- Control: Autonomy allows employees to have more control over their work life and responsibilities, which can also go a long way to eliminating micromanaging by leaders, allowing them to better fulfill their responsibilities.
- Productivity: Team members who are encouraged to work autonomously will be more productive, which benefits the entire organization.
- Creativity and innovation: When employees are able to complete tasks using their unique skills and talents with little interference from others, creativity and innovation can flourish.
- Employee engagement: Team members who have autonomy and ownership are more likely to be “all in” than those who are micromanaged or who feel like their leaders don’t trust them to complete tasks and responsibilities.
- Professional growth: Autonomy and ownership can increase a team member’s desire to prioritize learning new skills so they can continue to grow in their careers.
- Morale and motivation: As employees are successful in completing tasks and responsibilities, they will experience higher moral and a deeper motivation to continue their track record of success.
- Retention: Employees who are confident that their leaders trust them to work independently and successfully can be less likely to seek positions elsewhere.
All of the above benefits can also result in a stronger team culture, which is the foundation for any success a team or an organization can experience.
Learn more about how to create and nurture a strong team culture here.
Tips for Strengthening Autonomy & Ownership on Your Team
In one study, 52% of employees felt that they lacked the autonomy they desired. When strong autonomy and ownership are the goal, how can leaders achieve this goal and reap the benefits outlined above? Here are some steps leaders can take to strengthen autonomy and ownership among their team members, resulting in success for their team and the organization.
Continually build trust. When there is a lack of trust between leaders and employees, employees are more likely to be less productive, have lower self-confidence in their abilities, offer creative and contributive feedback to the team, and are more likely look for another position. When considering the retention of high-quality employees, millennials surveyed are 22 times more likely to seek out and work in companies with a culture that prioritizes a trusting environment.
Trust can’t be required or expected; it has to be earned. If leaders want their team to trust them, they have to show trust to their team. Basically, trust begets trust. And when strengthening autonomy and ownership is the goal, which requires a high level of trust, it’s imperative that leaders continually strive to strengthen the bonds of trust with their team to achieve the autonomy and ownership that leads to success for everyone.
1:1 conversations are the best way to build trust. Learn how to turn these important conversations into trust-building opportunities here.
Meet team members where they are. Depending on past experiences, some employees will flourish with more autonomy, while others might struggle to work independently. Seek to understand each team member and then work with them individually to increase their self-confidence in their skills and abilities, gradually moving them towards the goal of working autonomously and with more ownership over their responsibilities.
Clearly communicate goals and visions. Communication is key in any relationship, but especially with leaders and employees. Where autonomy and ownership are concerned, communication—or the lack thereof—can impact how well team members work independently and the results they achieve. Studies have proven the crucial role communication plays in the workplace:
- 86% of leaders and employees believe that poor communication caused workplace failures.
- 97% of team members cite communication as a major impact on productivity.
- 28% of employees believe poor communication is the main reason for missed deadlines.
- Productivity can be increased by 25% when effective methods of communication are in place.
- Poor communication can cost businesses upwards of $37 billion each year.
With these statistics in mind, if employees don’t have a clear understanding of what’s expected of them, it’s difficult for expectations to be met. Therefore, it’s crucial that leaders clearly communicate and share company expectations and the overall vision in the methods that work best for their team and individual team members.
Recruit autonomous-minded team members. If a prospective employee isn’t comfortable working independently or will require any amount of micromanaging, they are probably not a good fit if team autonomy and ownership are the goal. Seek to recruit team members who are more comfortable working in an autonomous environment and who take pride in owning their responsibilities, which can help set everyone up for success from day one.
Provide the tools. Steve Jobs once said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do.” With a team that is focused on autonomy and ownership, you already have smart people in place, so it’s crucial that they have the tools they need to work as independently as possible. This can include providing resources, technology, additional training, or whatever other tools your team members need to complete roles and responsibilities independently and to take ownership of tasks and projects.
Exemplify and encourage a growth mindset. Growth mindset people believe abilities, skills, and knowledge can be continually developed and increased through effort. Fixed mindset people, on the other hand, believe just the opposite: Someone’s level of abilities, skills, and knowledge cannot be improved or changed. When autonomy and ownership are the goal, a growth mindset is essential as autonomy requires the constant development of knowledge, skills, and abilities. Leaders can nurture a growth mindset in their team environment through demonstrating this type of mindset in their own responsibilities, including leading their team.
Learn more about growth and fixed mindsets and how they can help lead you and your team to continued development and success here.
Allow employees to learn. Learning is not a perfect process, and when team members are learning how to be more autonomous, they will stumble from time to time. But it is in those stumbles where new knowledge can be earned and autonomy can be increased. As long as you’re leading—and not micromanaging—your team, they can feel safe in stumbling with the knowledge that you have their backs and that they can be successful due to the valuable experience and knowledge they gain through their stumbles.
When an environment that exhibits strong autonomy and ownership is in place, team members will be given the tools and space they need to thrive in their roles and responsibilities, benefitting the company and every team member. Leaders are crucial components in this process, and when the tips we’ve shared are implemented, autonomy and ownership can continuously flourish within their team, leading to greater success for everyone.