At the Four Seasons Hotels group, service is essential to success — and not just to the guest experience. Four Seasons instructs employees to “do whatever you think is right when servicing the customer,” empowering them to make critical decisions and share in the company’s success. Little wonder that Four Seasons has ranked among the world’s best workplaces for two decades.
Employee autonomy drives success, but some leaders remain unsure how to harness it. Autonomy involves more than allowing employees to work from home a few days per week. It means providing employees with the tools and frameworks to work independently and creatively within a team. It means giving them agency to choose not just when and where they work but how. It means trusting employees to do their jobs without interference.
Research consistently finds that employees with higher levels of autonomy are happier, more satisfied with their jobs, and more productive. Team members with autonomy are more engaged, more creative, and less likely to leave.
To foster autonomy in a team setting, leaders must blend trust, the right tools, communication, and investment into a space where employees thrive. Let’s explore some ways to create long-term success in an autonomous team.
Be Intentional About Trust and Transparency
Trust is capital to your workforce. According to the Harvard Business Review, employees of high-trust companies are less stressed, more energetic, more engaged, and more productive. Yet many employees say they don’t feel trusted.
Establishing a culture of trust should be a priority for new leaders. For example, don’t micromanage employee projects; allow teams to direct processes and solve problems individually, and set goals and KPIs with team members instead of for them.
Trust also means authorizing team members to build and maintain schedules and respecting their ‘Away’ or ‘Offline’ status; this requires a high level of communication and transparency from leaders, who must create environments encouraging open dialogue and team-oriented solutions.
Invest in Your Team
According to the theory of self-determination, humans derive motivation from three intrinsic sources: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. To foster autonomy, leaders must nurture the other two sources. That means investing in your team’s skills and integration.
Leaders must provide employees with the proper tools to succeed. That includes more than the necessary tech, such as laptops, headsets, ergonomic equipment, etc. Invest in your team’s skills and competencies through coursework and continuing education, certifications, and other learning resources. Often these are free or inexpensive and provide rich opportunities.
Relatedness refers to our need to connect, which remote work has made more imperative. PwC found that, though most people prefer hybrid work, 87 percent still called the office better for relationship-building. Leaders should invest in employees’ ability to connect remotely, even through simple means such as hosting online happy hours or giving them the last 10 minutes of a meeting to discuss anything but work. Encouraging teams to connect enhances individual well-being and improves independent work.
Leadership coach Paloma Medina devised the acronym BICEPS to illustrate our six core human needs:
Team members might order these needs differently, but all play a role in their success. So leaders must address them consistently. Building an inclusive, equitable workforce requires giving each team member access to the same resources and opportunities. It means establishing practices (not “policies,” according to HBR) that employees know will be applied fairly and consistently. It means being accountable for organizational issues that arise from inconsistency.
Most of all, leaders must be consistently available. Working autonomously doesn’t mean working alone. Teams still need guidance and structure, which comes from dependable leadership.
‘Give Away Your Legos’
Leaders, especially entrepreneurs looking to scale their businesses, must give up to grow. That could include project oversight, new-location design, or daily customer-service requirements. By giving up, leaders demonstrate trust in others and enable teams to trust themselves.
Growing companies often find employees asking, “Now what’s my role here?” But companies that embed autonomy into their processes will employ people who embrace growth, seek new challenges, and deliver value. They’re able, perhaps even eager, to share legos.
“When people have the ability to direct their own lives, they do better work,” says Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pink also says that leaders should strive to develop an engaged workforce instead of a compliant workforce.
Team members work better when their company encourages them to be self-governing. To build long-lasting success, leaders must lead and get out of the way.