4 Steps to Building a Culture of Autonomy

Helping your team become autonomous is critical to increased productivity and growth


Kendall Barndollar , Fri 15 December 2023
“Give a man to fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Learning has always been the foundation for success. In creating a successful culture of autonomy, managers must prioritize learning, development, and experiences to build a team of self-sufficient, well-prepared employees. 

Autonomy in the workplace may lead to improved engagement, job satisfaction, and productivity. Allowing professionals to be entirely responsible for their work will create a team of individuals committed to their work. Autonomy and task follow-through improve job satisfaction. Seeing a project from start to finish makes a role more meaningful, leading to increased job satisfaction and in turn, job performance. Finally, a culture prioritizing autonomy produces a highly productive team of well-versed individuals. By creating faster decision-making processes and well-prepared individuals, productivity will skyrocket in autonomous teams. 

As managers, many struggle to build a culture of independence for their direct reports. When managers do not promote an autonomous environment, their team members lose learning opportunities, and managers become overworked. A crucial part of learning is having the ability to make decisions that lead to mistakes. A crucial part of leading is learning how to be flexible in correcting these mistakes and learning from past experiences. 

A culture prioritizing autonomy teaches direct reports to be resourceful and thorough in their work. Rather than an individual asking their boss or team leader, they should first use every resource available as a tool in completing their task. Promoting a culture of autonomy continues beyond task performance and enables managers to build strong employees. As individuals gain decision-making experience, they grow into thoughtful, experienced, self-sufficient leaders. 

Managers commonly struggle with transferring decision-making responsibilities to other leaders in a firm. However, without autonomous professionals, managers become overworked and burnt out over time. To build a culture of autonomous employees, managers must consider the following factors' impact on the workplace. 

  1. Embrace Mistakes
It is impossible to grow without feedback. Creating a culture that embraces mistakes as learning opportunities will contribute to role autonomy. As managers, many will eventually forget the hard work, mistakes, and learning opportunities it takes to reach an executive position. Creating a culture that views errors as areas for growth is crucial for team success. To build an autonomous team, it is vital to cultivate a culture that approaches mistakes as opportunities for learning. In a culture that does not encourage risk-taking, emerging leaders struggle to get the experience necessary to succeed after making a poor decision. Most importantly, leaders need practice to efficiently and effectively identify solutions after making inevitable mistakes. 

2. Encourage Team Development
Encouraging team development produces autonomy within teams. Allowing independent development through the four normative stages of team development (forming, storming, norming, and performing) enables a team to succeed. Team development puts priority on direct reports working amongst each other, without consistent involvement from executive management. Teams foster a habit of learning from others, and communicating amongst peers, rather than relying on managers. Thus, enhancing the autonomy and capabilities of direct reports and, enabling individuals to learn from their colleagues. Although challenging, managers practicing limited involvement in team development enables professionals to make mistakes and rehearse the required skills to become outstanding leaders. 

3. Prioritize Psychological Safety
Prioritizing psychological safety in the workplace is crucial to building a team of autonomous and responsible individuals. Allowing employees to make mistakes and learn from them is what builds a resilient, sustainable team. Allowing for problem-solving skills to be practiced and rehearsed equips direct reports with the skills to succeed. These crucial skills develop with experience and time, allowing direct reports to practice in a safe environment and enabling great workplace success. Focusing on psychological safety creates an environment where it is okay to fail. While failing seems counterproductive to success, managers have to weigh the cost of a few failures with the benefit of building strong and experienced professionals in a team. 

4. Encourage Horizontal Mentorship 
Mentorship is a building block to a culture of autonomous employees. Building mentorship programs in a firm enables those with more experience to learn from others, rather than creating a dependence on executive management. Horizontal mentorship enables employees to learn from their peers at all levels, from entry-level to executive management. Building a mentorship program brings value to autonomous culture by teaching professionals the steps through a decision-making process and factors to be accounted for rather than relying on a manager to make the decision. Managers may also benefit from horizontal leadership by learning how others relinquish control and put trust in their team. 

In the aforementioned steps, managers need to be cognizant that building a culture takes time. Resistance to change is common, especially in transforming from a culture dependent on executives to a culture that operates independently from executives. Creating autonomy in a team is challenging when managers have been heavily involved in the day-to-day tasks of employees so, learning to delegate and trust team members is a challenging process for most managers. Prioritizing learning and development within a team will enable leaders to promote autonomy. Adaptability will lead to a thriving, autonomous culture in adjusting to change and promoting flexibility in the process. 

Throughout an autonomous culture, it is necessary to promote communication among team members. Without feedback and open dialogue, it is challenging to grow. As always in the workplace, it is imperative to establish systems for feedback. Rather than an annual performance review, consider using a platform such as AIM Insights that will provide continuous feedback at all levels to aid in the development of a strong team, prioritizing goal setting and achievement. 



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