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Autonomy Is the Best Way to Reward Your Team

Autonomy is not total independence, but balancing freedom with accountability. Autonomy is the biggest reward people want.

By Gustavo Razzetti

July 16, 2021

People want to own their choices

Micromanagement is pervasive — research shows that 79 percent of people have been victims of it. But it’s not a need for control that drives this behavior; it’s a need for survival. We live in a connected and empowered society, where employees want autonomy in the workplace. This is incompatible with the fact that almost half of all surveyed executives acknowledge having a strong desire for power.

This doesn’t make them micromanagers in the traditional sense, where they observe and control everything their subordinates do. Rather, they simply like to be seen as experts and authority figures. Employees’ demand for autonomy creates an existential crisis among these executives, who believe their expertise and authority are no longer needed.

“The worst leader is he who people despise. A good leader is she who people worship. A great leader is one who makes people say: ‘we ourselves did it.’”— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Most executives delegate tasks, but not necessarily authority. Teams own projects but, in the end, have to wait for The Boss to make the final call. There’s a cost to this tactic. Employees wait around for the green light rather than moving a project forward. They lose excitement and commitment in the process.

On top of that, many companies micromanage employees indirectly by expecting them to do things in a specific way. The how seems to matter more than the what — often for reasons unknown to employees (and executives).

Micromanagement is not scalable. If organizations want to grow and become more agile, it’s crucial that employees are empowered to take the reins.

The Benefits of Autonomy in the Workplace

“Autonomy is the antithesis of micromanagement.”— Joan F. Cheverie

Autonomy is our desire for choice. It’s the feeling that we manage our own actions. And it’s not just about the ability to choose — it’s also about creating the options. There’s little that even money can do to offset feeling oppressed at a job, as described in this Quartz piece.

When a workplace enables autonomy:

  • People feel more valued: Having a say in how things are done creates a sense of ownership — employees are committed, not just transactional.
  • It alleviates negative emotions: Neuroscientist Steven Maier of Colorado University found that it’s easier to manage our emotions when we’re in control. Stressors we can’t control are far more damaging than stressors we feel we have some control over.
  • It makes the job more attractive: “People were nearly two and a half times more likely to take a job that gave them more autonomy than they were to want a job that gave them more influence” in one study, as reported by Melissa Dahl in New York Magazine.
  • It drives loyalty: Motivation expands when people feel in control, as described by Harry E. Chambers in his book, My Way or the Highway: The Micromanagement Survival Guide.
  • It increases productivity: Studies have shown that autonomy makes people more efficient.

Autonomy Drives Accountability (And Vice Versa)

The opposite of control is not “total independence.” Kids are dependent; teenagers want full independence. The balance lies in being interdependent. Adults value autonomy, but they also value other people. Autonomy is not total independence — it’s a collective mindset that increases team performance.

Not understanding the critical distinction between autonomy and independence makes managers afraid of delegating authority. They associate “freedom” with lower performance and accountability. Though it sounds counterintuitive, genuine autonomy amplifies both freedom and responsibility.

To help managers and employees see this, we must reframe the reward system at work. We need to move from a carrot-and-stick approach to an intrinsically motivated approach. As Daniel Pink describes in his book Drive, we must focus on three elements: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

As Pink explains, our brains are wired to self-direct. We don’t want others telling us how to do things; we want to feel in control. We need to feel autonomy over our tasks (what we do), our time (when we do it), the team (who we do it with), and the technique (how we do it). Spotify, for example, is organized in small cross-functional teams known as “Squads” — each has the autonomy to decide what to build, how to build it, and how to work together.

Autonomy and accountability are not opposing forces that must be balanced. Promoting autonomy encourages people to become more accountable to themselves and others. It creates a virtuous cycle.

Belonging Drives Accountability

“Great leaders don’t want the attention, but they use it. They use it to unite the tribe and to reinforce its sense of purpose.”— Seth Godin

We are social animals. Our culture is shaped by the groups, or tribes, we belong to. In his book Tribes, Seth Godin defines a “tribe” as a group of people who share interests and communication styles. Members of a tribe are connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.

Great teams are like tribes. People want to connect with a leader and an idea — they want to join a mission, not just a job, as I wrote here. People want connection and growth. They want to be accountable to something larger than themselves.

When teams behave like tribes, they increase their chances of success. They become tighter and more fluid entities. They become great at recruiting and immersing newcomers. They also become skilled at identifying and rejecting those who lower the bar.

Spotify’s “Squads” define their own missions, develop their own goals, and how they work — they are tribes with end-to-end responsibilities.

Godin describes how great leadership creates the conditions for tribes to form and thrive: “A leader can help increase the effectiveness of the tribe and its members by transforming the shared interest into a passionate goal and desire for change; providing tools to allow members to tighten their communications; and leveraging the tribe to allow it to grow and gain new members.”

When a team becomes a tribe, the role of the leader doesn’t lose importance — it evolves into something much more meaningful.

How to Get Started

How managers introduce a challenge or kick off a new project can encourage the feeling of autonomy, or hinder it — and perception matters as much as reality.

Here are some tips for leaders who want to foster strong, autonomous tribes:

  • Recognize that your job is to lead people, not to manage tasks. You must work through others to accomplish a mission.
  • Start small. Promising full autonomy and then cutting back on “freedom” not only backfires — it erodes trust and credibility. It’s always better to surprise than to overpromise.
  • Set expectations upfront. For every project, be clear on what you want to achieve and on the rules of engagement. What’s the mission? How much accountability will the team have? Will they need to check in with you at certain stages? If you have doubts or fears, share those with your teams too — change is navigating uncertainty. People expect leaders to be honest, not to be perfect.
  • Be patient. It takes time for a team to turn into a high-performing tribe. People sometimes turn into “dictators” when they receive more power — through time, they’ll find balance. Be ready for some chaos at the beginning of the process.
  • Reframe mistakes as learning moments. To experiment with “new ways of crossing the river,” people must make mistakes. Create a habit of turning errors into lessons. At WD-40, mistakes are called “learning moments” — they can be positive or negative, but are never considered bad. Employees openly and freely share mistakes because they understand that though mistakes come and go, learnings stay forever.
  • Promote collective autonomy. Providing people with more freedom to speak and make choices doesn’t mean they’ll do what they want. It’s always about what’s better for the tribe, not for a particular individual.
  • Focus on the mission. Leading change by delegating authority involves specifying the desired outcome, putting a team in charge, and letting them design a way to get there. Challenge your team to find a way to cross the river rather than asking them to build a bridge.
  • Focus on accountabilities, not just goals. Autonomy and accountability are two sides of the same coin. Expectations for each role must be clear and aligned with the distributed authority. In Holacracy, a self-management practice, accountabilities usually begin with an -ing verb to convey that it’s an ongoing activity (and not a one-time project or action). Check out this post on for more on crafting accountabilities.
  • Set level expectations. Clarity is critical. Educate your team on the power of autonomy and how to implement it throughout your organization. Most importantly, focus on the why: What are you trying to achieve?
  • Simplify your rules. Most organizations build their policies with a micromanagement mindset. Take a close look at both your employee handbook and the unwritten rules you mention in meetings. Is everything forbidden unless it is permitted? Or is it everything allowed unless it’s forbidden? General Motors’ CEO narrowed down its dress code policy to just two words: “dress accordingly.”
  • Include your team along the way. Promoting autonomy with a top-down approach would be ironic. Your team should be involved from the beginning, especially when setting up expectations, clarifying the problem to be fixed, and aligning on the ideal outcome. Early involvement not only minimizes resistance and noise down the line, it promotes ownership.

Autonomy is more rewarding than money. People want to join a mission and become part of a tribe, not to be told how to work. They want to be the source of their own action.

Letting go of power may make many leaders nervous, but micromanagement is what really hinders an organization’s potential. It cannot be scaled. The same applies when implementing autonomy at your company: there’s no universal solution, no one-size-fits-all method for developing strong, agile, high-functioning tribes. Every company must find its own way.

Reach out to discuss how we can help you increase autonomy – and accountability – within your team.

What do you think?



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