The Difference Between Offering Employee Autonomy and Lazy Management

Autonomy…what does it really mean when it comes to employees? HR consultants such as Josh Bersin have been citing autonomy as an important aspect of employee engagement for the past few years. However, a recent article on the TLNT blog called the need for autonomy a myth, saying that it can leave the employee feeling “disconnected, isolated and ignored.”

Autonomy means that employees are given a large degree of latitude in the way they attain the goals assigned to them. They are allowed to use their unique skills to accomplish tasks as they see fit without being micromanaged. It does not mean not giving them direction or never checking in.

For example, you might tell your marketing coordinator that she needs to track the ROI of your email campaigns to present at quarterly meetings: that’s called giving direction. Micromanagement would be telling her that she needs to use an Excel document, that she needs to run the reports on Friday, and the exact equation to use to find the ROI.

To the other extreme, if you simply tell her “run our email marketing and make sure it works,” and never follow up, that’s called poor management. Micromanagement and lack of direction will negatively affect employee engagement, albeit in different ways.

Employees who are ignored will:

  • Feel that their efforts are going into a void
  • Gradually lose motivation
  • Display low productivity in the absence of goals, deadlines, measurement, and recognition
  • Eventually find a job where they can be more engaged

Employees who are micromanaged will:

  • Feel that they are not trusted or valued for their skills and experience
  • Only do what is asked, the way it is asked
  • Become resentful of the offending manager(s)
  • Eventually find a job where they are valued

Autonomy is the middle ground between these two extremes. It is not the absence of management, but rather management of outcomes rather than process (and facetime). Skilled managers that train, mentor, measure, and recognize their employees’ efforts will engage employees. Every employee is different and will desire and thrive under different shades of autonomy (i.e. a daily 5-minute check-in vs. a weekly 30-minute check-in, or a longer monthly check-in). Again, it is the manager’s job to assess what works, as well as to ask the employee what he or she prefers.

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