Autonomy in Leadership: Empowering Teams for Success

    Autonomy in Leadership: Empowering Teams for Success

    A boss constantly breathing down your neck, watching your every move, telling you how to do your job every day and checking your work like a child, is a soul-destroying boss. They’re a boss in desperate need of a lesson in autonomous leadership.

    Autonomy in leadership is trusting your team to do what needs to be done, on their terms. It’s saying, “We value your skills and knowledge, and we want you to apply them as you see fit as you perform your role based on the crystal-clear clarity we have agreed to. We want you to think for yourself, solve problems your way, have a genuine say in decision-making, and have the freedom to learn new skills to accomplish your goals.”

    Quite simply, CLARITY is the WHAT, AUTONOMY is the HOW.

    Clarity and autonomy don’t work without each other. It’s a constant – and delicate – balancing act. Not enough clarity, and leaders will always be needing to stick their oar in, rehash conversations and rework others’ efforts. They won’t be able to give people the freedom they so desperately need.

    Too much autonomy without enough clarity is just chaos and constant firefighting. Just the right amount of each? That’s the mix for higher-performing, resilient teams who fight their own fires and let leaders focus on the horizon.

    Clarity before autonomy, always. Autonomous leadership requires crystal-clear answers to the questions: “Why are we doing this?”, “What exactly needs to get done? When by?”, and “Who needs to be involved?” When team members have that clarity, they can then choose HOW things are executed, handled, stopped, started.

    Autonomy starts with being curious. All good questions start with:




    What do you think are the 3 best options to achieve the goal we have agreed?

    How would you go about doing this task a better way?
    When would you know you need some help?

    Delegate and develop with powerful questions that start with What, how, when.

    The Significance of Autonomy in Modern Leadership

    Remember when you learned to drive a car, and you hit the road for the first time, with the wind in your hair. Maybe you even let out a “woo.” You still had to learn how to drive first, and had rules to follow, but as long as you stuck to those, you were free to go wherever you wanted. That’s how every employee needs to feel.

    We all need flexibility, freedom, and to know we have a voice that’s heard and valued. The more wisdom and confidence you acquire over time, the more control your brain craves – and deserves! Remember, autonomy is earned. Fostering autonomy is on leaders’ shoulders. But 52% of employees lack autonomy in their work (Effectory).

    Autonomous leadership empowers individuals to take calculated risks, share their ideas, learn from their mistakes, and adapt to new challenges. Employees who can act with autonomy tend to have stronger job performance, higher job satisfaction and greater commitment to the organization (HBR). Nearly half of employees would give up a 20% raise for greater control over how they work (PwC).

    Steal people’s autonomy, and you steal their ability to develop and grow. You steal a key intrinsic motivator. We are wired for control. If it was cold, we’d build a fire. If there was a T-rex attack, we’d run for the caves. We are at cognitive ease when we are in control, not when others control us. When our brains are under stress when someone is trying to control, the threat circuity is triggered and they send resources to deal with primary survival functions, reducing those flowing to the areas where higher thinking takes place. Without autonomy in leadership, we can’t make good decisions like that. How can organizations expect to respond to change with agility unless people are creating their best work and on their toes?

    When you’re micromanaging, you’re not paying attention to the people around you. Trust erodes, unity breaks apart, innovation is cast adrift. People will be disengaged and under-performing. They’ll be looking at the door.

    Inspirations Behind Emphasizing Autonomy

    Why is autonomy in leadership a core component of CARE? In my book, I share anecdotes and insights – ‘Alexamples’ – that explain just this.

    Like the day I stole my team’s autonomy. DX needed to decide between two technology vendors. We had issues with the existing vendor that were dragging down both his team and ours. With the deadline looming, I kicked off our DX team meeting on Monday morning with, “I’ve made a decision. We’re going with the existing vendor.” Cue looks of horror.

    Luckily, the DX team feels psychologically safe enough to call me out when I’m wrong, because this was one of those times. I listened, learned, and changed my mind based on their input. No one is right 100% of the time. But what if they hadn’t felt psychologically safe enough to disagree? I’m sure I would be at least one great team member down right now.

    I also explore two autonomy in leadership biases in detail: the IKEA bias, and the Once Bitten, Twice Shy (OBTS) bias.

    When DX were building a new product, instead of giving my own ideas, I asked everyone to spend the week brainstorming. The excitement on their faces told me I’d done the right thing – and that I’d been stealing their autonomy. The team broke through to new levels of creativity and came up with ideas I never would have thought of alone – ideas still in play today in a product used by several Fortune 500 companies. The team really believe in this product in a special way, because they have ownership in its creation (IKEA self-assembly, see?)

    You know what they say about what ‘assume’ makes of you and me. STOP your brain in its tracks when it tells you that just because you didn’t build it (Ikea Effect) or just because it didn’t work for you (Once Bitten, Twice Shy) it won’t work for anyone else.

    Autonomy's Role in Fostering Psychological Safety

    Psychological safety is the bedrock upon which healthy, innovative, high-performing teams are built.

    The atmosphere is miserable when it’s missing. Employees silently comply with orders, their confidence in their abilities is chipped away, they question their value, teams fall out of alignment, and job satisfaction and productivity decline. It creates cognitive stress and effects on the human body and brain. Lunch hours are spent with heads in hands, complaining to friends, slyly scrolling through LinkedIn looking for a better job.

    Admitting mistakes, weaknesses or not knowing the answer is scary, for leaders and their teams. What if I look stupid or incapable? But without empowering leadership, without being vulnerable and getting comfortable with mistakes and failures, how can we grow? Not leading with vulnerability creates fear in teams and inhibits learning. Problem-solving abilities are impaired and so is the leader’s ability to lead effectively.

    Leaders tend to have their own preferences. But autonomous leadership gives people what they crave to reduce cognitive stress; it gives teams what they need, not just the leader’s default.

    The key to autonomy is trust. That trust goes both ways! Empowering leadership leads to teams that feel safe to tell you they’re not comfortable with a decision or have a better idea. They don’t feel like they’re driving a car with a back-seat driver who doesn’t trust them to even take it out of ‘park’.

    Psychological safety is where status quos are challenged, where the best ideas come from, and where higher performance begins.

    Reflecting on the Journey: Autonomy in My Leadership Approach

    Drop the ego and let go of the wheel. It’s the leader’s job to get teams talking, taking ownership, and engaging their brains and imaginations in new and exciting ways.

    Autonomy in leadership means leading with questions and empowerment. It’s a crucial step to the next important piece of the CARE equation: R, for building Relationships.

    Ask them, “If this was your decision, how would you do it?” or “What are some options available to us?” and really listen.

    Unlock the potential of your team by fostering autonomy. Pre-order my upcoming book to learn how to effectively empower your team through autonomous leadership.



    What is autonomy in leadership and why does it matter?

    Autonomy in leadership is about trusting your team to execute tasks on their terms, fostering independence and innovation. It matters because it boosts job satisfaction, performance, and commitment.

    How can leaders effectively foster autonomy within their teams?

    By providing clarity and empowering their team to make decisions and use their skills and talents as they see fit to perform their role, leaders create a culture of trust, learning and psychological safety.

    In what ways does autonomy contribute to a team's psychological safety?

    Autonomy contributes to psychological safety by encouraging team members to freely express ideas, challenge the status quo, and take ownership of their work, leading to greater innovation and higher performance.

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