Autonomous Leadership and Ways to Encourage Autonomy in the Workplace

Autonomy in the workplace offers serious challenges.  It is difficult to implement and easy to abuse.  It requires communication between managers/leadership and employees as well as trust, both of which can offer their own challenges.

In general employees do not want to be told what to do every second of every day and managers don’t want to babysit.  That’s where autonomy comes into play.  If balanced correctly, autonomy can be extremely efficacious to companies.

Defining Autonomy

First, it is important to define what autonomy is and what it is not.

Many employees and managers have their own opinions of what autonomy looks like, but they are often incorrect.  Employees believe autonomy means they have unbridled freedom while managers believe autonomous employees will not be as fruitful.

This is not the case.

Autonomy is the means by which employees have the latitude to make their own decisions and employers provide both the tools and the guidelines to help employees succeed.

Autonomy is not:

  • Working in isolation without supervision.
  • Allowing employees to do whatever they like, but rather employers creating guidelines that put boundaries around employee autonomy.
  • Working without a net, but rather employers providing a picture of what success looks like and tips on how to achieve it.

Guidelines create a situation where autonomy is defined company-wide, and both parties are able to collaborate and be effective.

Autonomy Success

One company successful in creating this type of work environment is Spotify.

Employees of the music streaming service are grouped into teams called ‘squads’.  Each squad is accountable for a specific aspect of the product Spotify provides.  They have authority to decide everything about the aspect including how it should be built and what other teams, if any, assist in the building.

In this way, squads are accountable for how the product performs.  Guidelines and coaches are in place to help guide creation, but not decide how it should progress.

As mentioned previously, communication and trust are needed to make autonomy successful.  In the case of Spotify, employees are entrusted to communicate with one another and, in doing so, trust each team is helping others progress.  Without communication, these teams would be forced to work in isolation

Put another way:  communication breeds trust.

A perfect example would be Credit Karma.

On a regular basis, the company’s CEO will hold an “all-hands on deck” meeting.  The sole purpose of the meeting is to share the board report in every detail.  Every line item, growth chart, and production plan is shared with the employees.  It allows the workforce to be confident in their daily jobs, but also to understand the bigger picture the company is working toward.

While that explains the communication portion of the equation, the trust portion is a bit more cloaked.

The information presented at these meetings is, at best, confidential.  Credit Karma’s leaders take a gamble when sharing it with employees.  But they must trust them to keep it “within the family.”  The mutual trust leads to respect and, according to Credit Karma leaders, better decisions-making across every facet of the company.

Potential for Negative Outcomes

If providing employees with the information allows for better autonomy, one would be right in assuming the restriction of that information would have the opposite effect.

Failing to provide information to employees leaves open the opportunity to form assumptions of their own, which can be past to fellow employees.  It can also cause employees to jump to rash conclusions.  In the process, they may disconnect from managers and each other.

According to Geckoboard, more than 90% or employees would rather hear bad news than be kept in the dark about it.

Even when the news isn’t bad, employees begin to mistrust employers when the information is withheld.

For HR professionals that have been in this situation, employees will often say information is withheld because of the power knowledge creates, it takes too much time to share with employees, it may cost the company more money, or they think employees won’t understand.

Again, without the information, employees will fill in the blanks for themselves and assume the worst.  Transparency of information can reinforce autonomy.

Trust and autonomy are intertwined.  Trust is not given, but earned, and that means employees can’t simply demand it.  Managers and employees must trust first.

To be more specific:

  1. Managers must trust employees with increases responsibility.
  2. Employees should trust managers have their best interests at heart.

Not only to both lead to autonomy, but also trust from the customer in that the company will do what it is supposed to do to deliver the promised product.


When it comes down to it, communicating information to employees encourages autonomy and a culture of trust.  Employees will trust managers and leadership can be a resource for further success.  At the same time, employers can trust employees to make the best possible decision for every scenarioف

Author : Manson Stevenson

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