How to Strike the Best Balance Between Employee Autonomy and Accountability

— August 13, 2019

Few bosses set out to be the look-over-the-shoulder type. Unfortunately, many of them find it difficult to give employees more freedom within widening parameters. Yet throughout my career, I’ve consistently found that giving workers autonomy and accountability improves company morale, corporate culture, and team engagement.

Most managers know on an instinctive level that happier employees are generally more productive ones. The issue most of them run into, however, is getting to a point where they’re comfortable letting go. The key is to hire a team that enables you to strike that crucial balance between micromanagement and staff self-governance.

Onboarding for Personality

My recruitment philosophy is simple: Look for an identity fit first and a skills fit second. In other words, I look for good people because they’re more apt to earn my trust. By onboarding someone who has a great attitude and values diversity of thought, you can set yourself up for a smoother ride toward alignment autonomy. Plus, your training and knowledge sharing will go better because the employees will eagerly absorb what they learn and put their newfound skills into immediate practice.

This is a sharp shift from previous recruitment tenets centered around looking for people with a ton of technical know-how and an impressive background. But there’s no doubt that hiring great attitudes can make it easier to eventually move workers into a state of professional autonomy and accountability.

The last thing you want is for micromanaging to lead to decisions that are detrimental to employees and leaders. Beyond the fact that you’ll be seen as a hindrance rather than a help, you’ll kill the golden goose you just brought into your workplace family. Workers who are constantly monitored will rapidly lose trust and confidence not just in their managers, but also in themselves. Eventually, they move from thinking anything is possible to being scared to even try.

It’s like the worst of child-parent relationships. Consider the child who repeatedly refuses to clean his room. When the parent finally cleans the room out of exasperation, this only cements the child’s belief that he doesn’t need to be — or can’t be — self-reliant. Mom or Dad will fix it for him.

It’s a vicious cycle, and a similar dynamic occurs far too often in workplace settings. Avoid it by building a team competent enough to work autonomously but self-aware enough to embrace constructive criticism and be coachable.

Give Employees Room to Grow (Within Reason)

Employees aren’t the only ones who suffer in a tightly controlled authoritarian setting where managers have no clue how to promote autonomy. Leaders often discover that micromanaging is an exhausting and irritating exercise that risks burning them out along with their staffs.

The solution to this problem, though, isn’t granting employees authority without thought. Leaders who have a lackadaisical attitude are often viewed as unsupportive because they’re so far from the trenches that they can’t be seen, which worries employees. And that’s as big a problem as micromanagement itself.

Ideally, supervisors and executives should work to balance autonomy with oversight by leveraging resources and learning how to hold employees accountable without micromanaging. Below are some tools and approaches that can be used to guide your team in a healthy and effective way:

1. Set up protective boundaries.

Giving employees autonomy is not the same as removing all their safety nets. Continue to empower them and help them learn how to properly navigate their job function, but don’t give them carte blanche to run the store without some kind of check-ins.

Web-based solutions such as Asana and Trello will allow you to measure performance from a distance, intervening only when necessary. That way, you can confirm employees’ tasks are completed promptly and without difficulty, but you don’t have to impose constraints or always breathe down their necks.

2. Give them only the system permissions they need.

Customers have a huge fear of data breaches, which only makes sense in a data-driven world. Ensure the safety of your clients and employees by giving workers access to sensitive information only when necessary. Explain upfront that you are doing this to protect the consumers, not to punish any team members.

Most software systems allow you to restrict permissions as needed. If you aren’t currently doing this, it’s definitely time to start. Limiting the number of people who can see certain pages and items makes sense and allows you to feel better about giving employees autonomy in other areas.

3. Try a remote work arrangement.

Controversial or not, the labor force is increasingly heading toward remote work. After all, allowing talent to work off-site gives companies the opportunity to secure superstars from outside their region. Besides, working from home — or at least avoiding a long commute — makes life easier for employees.

To avoid this situation becoming a runaway train, establish communications expectations and protocols with your remote workers from day one. Talk about how you will stay in close contact via instant messaging, texts, and video chat software. These approaches won’t totally replace face-to-face interactions, but they will help you build trusting bonds. Don’t be surprised if your remote team members improve their quality and amount of daily output in response to their newly gained freedom.

Yes, it can be tough to give employees permission to largely govern themselves. Have faith that if you’ve hired a stellar crew, your decision will pay off big-time.

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Author: Lee Schwartz

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