Micromanager? Here are Some Benefits to Running a More Autonomous Team

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Micromanager? Here are Some Benefits to Running a More Autonomous Team
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Micromanager? Here are Some Benefits to Running a More Autonomous Team

No one likes a micromanager. But unpleasantness isn’t the worst of it! Micromanagement has been shown to lead to decreased productivity, low morale, and less innovation. One study even shows it’s among the top three reasons employees resign.

On the other side of micromanagement is the concept of autonomous teams. An autonomous work team is one where team members have some freedom over how, when, and where they do their jobs. The outcome? A team tracking towards organizational goals that also enjoys more freedom around exactly how to get there.

So how will you give your team greater autonomy? If you struggle with micromanagement, you might start here. But the changes required to thrive with greater independence are more foundational and cultural!

Today, we’re looking closer at workplace autonomy, what it can look like, exploring the benefits, and offering advice on giving your team greater autonomy. Let’s get into it.

What is team autonomy

What is team autonomy?

Let’s start with the basics – what is team autonomy? Like many things, there’s no one way to team autonomy. The more autonomous the team, the more freedom, flexibility, and agency they’ll have. Generally, an autonomous employee or team operates more independently and with less hierarchy. Each member is encouraged to be engaged and contribute rather than relying on someone to delegate tasks or hold them accountable.

Now – how to do this effectively? It still requires having clear high-level goals. But by hiring, nurturing, and creating a more autonomous culture, your organization can benefit from some of the many perks of autonomous teams (more on that below).

Some examples of autonomy for autonomous teams are…

  • Freedom of location – getting to work from home, choosing home office days, working remotely.
  • Choosing their work schedule – what time they start, which days they work, when they take breaks.
  • Setting their workloads and deadlines – choosing projects based on their capacity, determining timelines, and working towards them.
  • Choosing projects and teams – selecting projects that are interesting or of a good match for their skill set, volunteering for tasks, deciding which teammates to collaborate with
  • Making their own decisions with limited oversight – necessary access and agency to make decisions, make purchases, invest in tools, hire new team members, etc.

Depending on the nature of the work or the team, there will be varying levels of autonomy that make sense. Think of these as options as you work towards creating more autonomy for your team.

Benefits of an autonomous team

We briefly covered the negative impacts of micromanagement above. Perhaps the opposite of micromanagement is team autonomy! So what are some of the benefits?

  • Increased productivity. Autonomy has the benefit of engaging and empowering your team. Employees who are motivated to explore and innovate are more likely to be more productive. They’re also more likely to pursue ideas and take more ownership over the outcomes.
  • Less turnover. Autonomous teams also generally enjoy the benefit of lower turnover. Since employees get more autonomy over how, when, and where they work, they might see more opportunities to contribute within the organization or adapt the job to their ideal lifestyle rather than looking for work elsewhere. According to a 2021 McKinsey survey, 54% of employees cited not feeling valued as their reason for quitting. While it’s no guarantee, providing more autonomy can give employees a greater feeling of being valued.
  • Higher morale and engagement. When employees have more ownership over their projects, you can expect higher morale and engagement. The logic here is simple! When employees have more investment or personal stakes in the outcome, they’re more willing to put in the effort, contribute new ideas, and feel a sense of purpose than when they’re just executing tasks.
  • More creativity and innovation. Employees with more autonomy in their job functions and tasks benefit from more creativity and innovation. Without a clear path of “how” to get a task done, teams are challenged to think through solutions and execute something management may have never considered. The important thing here is to have checks in place to ensure that the solution will work within the organization or that the team doesn’t get started down the wrong path for lack of experience.
  • Less stress and burnout. Another benefit of autonomous work is that employees are more likely to be less stressed when they have some say over their schedule or where they work. For example, an employee who can pick their kids up from school or make a doctor’s appointment mid-day and make up the hours when they have more time can more balance their life with their work. A Gallup poll finds that employees who feel valued are “71% less likely to report experiencing a lot of burnout”. So try adding in more autonomy to show your key employees that you value their contributions.
  • Developing leaders. Working on an autonomous team presents lots of opportunities for leaders to emerge. If a team works more independently without the involvement of upper-level management, that doesn’t mean there’s no team lead or someone taking responsibility. You might delegate the role or let the team work it out naturally. Either way, each project becomes a small development opportunity for leaders. You’ll have a chance to see who steps up, contributes ideas, communicates most effectively, etc., all of which are skills of strong leaders.

How to create autonomous teams

How to create autonomous teams

Let’s say you see the value in having an autonomous team. Now, we’ll get into more detail about the steps that go into making your team independent.

Create a culture of autonomy

Before making major changes to the when, where, and how your team works, the foundation is creating a culture of greater autonomy. Start small! This might be by giving employees control over a single project or assigning a task without specific guidelines. Over time, you’ll be able to build up employee independence and confidence.

However, culture runs deeper than a couple of small process changes. It would be best to have managers at every level step back from micromanaging, accept mistakes, give feedback so employees can grow, and encourage innovation. You can also hire for qualities like independence and self-starting or build that into your training process. The more each employee aligns with your organizational value of autonomy, the more momentum is created for the overall workplace culture.

Set SMART goals (and communicate them)

Setting SMART goals is essential since without the day-to-day structure – working hours, specific tasks, management oversight – goals are the only guardrail that keeps autonomous teams working towards business outcomes.

To ensure that your dive into autonomous teams is successful, spend time upfront with your goal setting. Give your team clear indicators of what success will look like and what’s expected of them. While you won’t necessarily outline the steps to get there, you might have organizational goals, and smaller, more specific goals that you set for the project or team. You might consider using a goal-tracking app or your project management tool to view total progress towards a goal and to allow some oversight without having to check in directly with employees.

Activate managers with strong delegation, quiet leadership, and good processes

Strong delegation is also important as you move towards autonomy for your team. Behind every successful autonomous team is a manager who understands people’s strengths and has the ability to effectively delegate. A great manager will understand what’s needed for the project to be self-sufficient and ensure the team has all the resources and know-how to move forward.

As your team becomes more comfortable operating independently, the next management skill is quiet leadership – and this doesn’t mean no leadership! Rather that you lead by guiding rather than micromanaging. Ensure that leaders are at every level or designate a team member to take a leadership role. Of course, as a manager, you can still course correct when needed, but the idea here is to guide rather than take over. Remember, autonomy grows from a foundation of trust!

Finally, make sure to roll out changes to team autonomy with processes that support it. As you might imagine, freedom without structure could easily tip towards things simply not getting done or sloppy work. That’s where project management tools like Monday, Notion, Asana, or Teamly can help make sure your project still tracks towards goals with less management involvement.

Support employee development and foster growth

An engaged employee is more likely to stay at a company and be more productive. That’s where supporting employee development and fostering their growth becomes so important.

We’ve written many articles on remote teams. And some of the same principles apply! Especially this one on how to keep remote teams engaged. What autonomous teams and remote teams have in common is a more hands-off approach to management. But both still require just enough oversight that employees stay engaged. Data supports that autonomous employees are generally more engaged, but you’ll still want to be conscious about keeping it that way. And one of the best ways to do that is by supporting their development and giving them plenty of growth opportunities.

This might mean putting team members on interesting projects, giving them new opportunities to step up, and letting them try new things. By doing this, you’ll naturally be supporting employee development. You might also consider giving your team members a mentor, formal training opportunities, or promotions to maintain their engagement. It takes a smart manager to recognize employee achievements and celebrate and reward them before they have to ask for it. Don’t simply give them more responsibility – notice when they do, and ensure their achievements are celebrated.

Ready to make your team more autonomous

Ready to make your team more autonomous?

An autonomous team can be more productive. It also can have lower turnover, higher morale, less stress, and the outcome of cultivating leaders. But it takes more than a flexible schedule or new project management tool to make your transition to greater team autonomy more effective.

You can avoid some of the pitfalls of autonomous teams by creating a strong foundation – everything from your workplace culture to your employee attitudes supports a more independent way of working. Invest in this upfront, and you’ll see the benefits of an autonomous team firsthand.

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