in Leadership

Fostering Autonomy in a Team: 7 Lessons

“…leadership may be defined as: the ability to enhance the environment so that everyone is empowered to contribute creatively to solving the problem(s).”Gerald M. Weinberg

People do their best work when they are “intrinsically motivated” and one of the most important intrinsic motivator for people is autonomy in work. People need a space to perform and they need a say in how their work should be performed. Workplace autonomy feeds self-esteem and fosters creativity.

Here are a few things I have learned (from my experiences and seeing other leaders perform) on fostering autonomy in your team:

  1. Recruit right: That’s where it starts. It is important to ascertain that a team member is capable of handling things, take independent view of work and drive it accordingly. You can only foster autonomy when you have team members who you can rely on. Look for professional integrity while hiring, because that is at the core or self-organization.
  2. Have a strong purpose: Smart people subscribe to a compelling purpose. If the purpose of your project/initiative does not excite people, they will not be able to give their best.  Clarity of purpose also enables people to proactively align their actions and thinking in the best interest to achieve the purpose. In agile terms, a strong purpose that is bought in by all in the team is also referred to as “shared vision”. Strong purpose and clear goals automatically establishes a demand for performance.
  3. Do “Smart Delegation”: Smart delegation plays to people’s strengths. Delegating tasks that allow people to expand their capacity to deliver ensures that people put their best skills and experience to use. Smart delegation is also about setting the ground rules/expectations and setting team members free to take work related decisions within given boundaries and/or organization constraints.
  4. Offer/arrange for help: When people try to organize their work, they will definitely need help. Either you, as a leader, can offer direct help or arrange for help. How much team members help each other in difficult situations is an indicator of team strength. When people know that help is available, they will also be willing to extend help. It works in fostering autonomy where a lot of problems are taken care of at the team level. Good and timely help gets impediments out of the way and ensures progress.
  5. Monitor progress, not people: Monitoring people is easier, but it does not help. As a team lead, your primary role is to monitor progress, not people. Small wins on a daily basis can be a great motivator for people. When people know that progress is important, they will do what is needed to ensure progress.
  6. Retrospect: Once in a while, it helps to look at the journey so far along with the team. Retrospective helps team in sharing lessons, best/great practices and solutions. It fosters collaboration, strengthens the team, accelerates learning and equips them to take better decisions.
  7. Always respect: You can only expect a team member to work independently when they trust. Without respecting people, you can never build trust. Respect people, respect their views, listen to them and respect their time. Sometimes they will falter, take wrong decisions, make mistakes – but that’s what makes them human. Dealing with people without grace is #1 killer of individual autonomy.

A leader’s role in building a self-organized team is that of a catalyst who ensures that team is aligned to organization goals. A leader also maintains boundaries for a team and creates/maintains an environment where team members thrive, grow and contribute effectively.

Related Posts at QAspire

5 Ways To Build Trust (Lessons from a Conversation)
Leaders Cannot Be Blamers: 3 Things
Creating a Learning Organization: 10 Actions For a Leader

  1. “Dealing with people without grace is #1 killer of individual autonomy.” – That’s the highlight. You touched the nerve with this line.

    • Thanks Rushikesh. Managers are taught to be hard nosed, task oriented when dealing with people, and somewhere in the quest to simply get things done, human aspect is overlooked. Team gradually learns to follow instructions and a once-inspired team member ends up being a cog in the giant organizational wheel.

  2. Congratulations for a succint presentation.

    Indeed, it is quite advantageous to take your stakeholders into your confidence on any new initiative that you wish to take up for implementation. If taking into confidence is not possible, one may like to explore the next best option of informing them transparently.

    It need to be borne in mind that this may create some pockets of expressed and unexpressed reservations or resentments.
    The expressed reservations can be dealt with appropriately, but unexpressed reservations can be potential traps. By adopting the autonomous delegation route, you are multiplying your strength in exponential proportion.

    • @Ashok Vaishnav – Thanks! One sign of an autonomous self-organized team is that communication is seamless. A leader’s primary role in an autonomous team is to set expectations and manage these unexpressed resentments. Mitigation is possible if transparency as a virtue is established in early “norming/forming” cycle of team.

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