The 3 Myths of Employee Autonomy

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By Carsten Lund Pedersen

Employee autonomy is becoming one of the latest trends in business management with many industries failing to implement and benefit from the change successfully. The article debunks 3 myths of employee autonomy and provides solutions to utilise when it comes to addressing autonomy in the workplace.

 

As digitisation is accelerating the pace of business, assigning accountabilities to employees, rather than relying on organisational structure to direct them, is becoming an idealised pathway to organisational agility. In other words, having responsible and self-directed employees on board comprises a promising asset for organisations in an uncertain and dynamic world. Business magazines have long written about ways to promote employee autonomy, as seen in the many articles about Google’s 20% time, the HR policy of Netflix or Spotify’s unique approach to work. But these companies are not alone in their quest to empower employees and obtain agility.

In a knowledge-based economy where organisations must deal with constantly changing business conditions, employee autonomy and distributed leadership have often been hailed as the preferred managerial remedy. Although employee autonomy is undoubtedly important for navigating in these turbulent times, many organisations fail in their efforts to foster employee autonomy. Many of these failed efforts can arguably be blamed on the prevalence of 3 tenacious myths of employee autonomy. Therefore, fully understanding and rejecting these popular misconceptions comprise a first step in leveraging the true potential of your employees. The 3 myths are illustrated in the figure below, and the following will both explain the myths as well as actively bust them.

 

The no boss myth: Does employee autonomy exclude active management?

What is believed: The advent of organisations such as Valve or Zappos, which experiment with “boss-less” workplaces where employees can self-select into, and officially green-light, their own projects, has produced the misconception that employee autonomy makes managers obsolete. A wave of entrepreneurs, consultants, and academics are currently engaged in advocating for “wikified” organisations that leave little room for managers: For instance, as Gary Hamel notes, management is the least efficient activity in an organisation and therefore managers should all be fired; according to Hamel, “bureaucracy imposes a management tax” that is largely dangerous due to its invisibility, and therefore, organisations should find ways to acquire control, coordination and consistency “duty free” . In a similar vein, Ricardo Semler suggests that it is possible to obtain success by “managing without managers” as seen in the Brazilian company Semco, where employees to a large extent were able to control their own working conditions. Although the financial performance of Semco has been remarkable since this radical management intervention was introduced, such examples often lead to the misconception that employee autonomy is completely devoid of active management.

What research shows: But the boss-less company is a myth according to much research. As argued by Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein “managers still matter”, as flatter organisations do not make managers obsolete – these new organisational entities rather just need different kinds of managers. Moreover, studies have shown that it is important to understand the contingencies of empowering leadership, which requires an active leadership style to successfully empower employees. However, even as early as the 1960s, McGregor’s seminal work on the human side of the enterprise explicated how managerial assumptions and management style are essential elements for ensuring self-determination among the employees. Hence, much work has emphasised that employee autonomy requires active management to fully succeed.

Real-world illustration: To understand why, let’s revisit the Semco case from Ricardo Semler18. Although it is true that Semco had unusually autonomous initiatives in place such as employees setting their own work hours and voting on important corporate decisions, it is also true that at the heart of this autonomy was active top leadership and strong value-based management. Autonomy was a result of active managerial intervention that built a culture of responsible autonomy. Another relevant example is Toyota, which views the company’s frontline employees as knowledge workers with the wisdom of experience, and therefore empowers them; while they may have freedom to push back, Toyota, however, does have a strict hierarchy with managers who can take action quickly while having an interest in coaching employees.

Managerial solution: Instead of assuming that employee autonomy excludes active management, you should ask yourself how you, as a manager, can best foster autonomy and provide clear guidelines that secure the needed alignment and coordination among dispersed employees. Without these clear guidelines, chances are that your employees will be disorganised and uncoordinated, resulting in a Wild West scenario. Therefore, leadership’s new imperative is encouraging and inspiring coordinated creativity through an empowering leadership style.

 

The necessity myth: Is employee autonomy now needed in all organisations?

What is believed: Another common misconception today is that employee autonomy should be a new standard in the current dynamic and hyper-competitive environment, as it is becoming increasingly important to stay agile. And although it is true that dispersed decision authority is a relevant option for an increasing number of organisations, it is simply not true that autonomous employees are needed in all contexts. Autonomy is not for all.

Instead of assuming that your organisation needs increased autonomy, you will need to ask yourself if the industry and your type of organisation really needs dispersed decision authority.

What research shows: While employee autonomy is arguably becoming increasingly important for many industries due to the need for agility and motivation, not all situations, organisations nor industries require autonomy. For instance, it is well-trodden ground in business that exploitation of existing knowledge is important, which often requires standardisation, coordination and alignment, resulting in a more controlled organisational environment.

Real-world illustration: Consider the aviation industry. If you are traveling on a plane, chances are that you will prefer that the pilots on the plane and the staff in the control tower all follow the given standards, protocols and processes that are stipulated and agreed upon – and not prefer that they pursue individual ideas and plans. In such industries, coordination and compliance are central to safety and reliable operations, and therefore, employee autonomy must naturally be limited. There may, however, be areas where autonomy can be allowed within given boundaries. For instance, British Airways gave customer service employees freedom to act on their own within given boundaries, which has been important for a differentiating customer service.

Managerial solution: Instead of assuming that your organisation needs increased autonomy, you will need to ask yourself if the industry and your type of organisation really needs dispersed decision authority. Moreover, are there any functional areas in your organisation that should not be given autonomy – or only limited autonomy?

 

The simplicity myth: Is employee autonomy a simple concept?

What is believed: Another unfortunate tendency is to have a simplified understanding of employee autonomy. Autonomy is merely empowering employees, right? In fact, research suggests a more nuanced picture.

What research shows: My research conducted with colleagues at Copenhagen Business School shows that autonomy is actually a multi-faceted concept that is comprised by two dimensions: (1) Autonomy can be given to employees by management, and (2) autonomy can be taken by employees. When these two dimensions are combined, we obtain the 2×2 seen below. The matrix illustrates four different autonomy scenarios – and it is only when we consider the inherent duality of autonomy that we can realize the complexity of the concept.

 

 

Source: Pedersen (2018). “Applied Autonomy: A Practical Guide to Employee Autonomy” – Reprinted with permission
Instead of assuming that autonomy is a simple concept, you should therefore embrace the inherent duality of the concept.

Real-world illustration: When I talk to executives about the matrix, their reactions tend to be two-fold: At first they’re surprised by the many potential outcomes that can arise from the alignment vs autonomy challenge. But then they typically recognize the various scenarios and patterns in their own organisations, which often lead to quite intricate analyses of their autonomy efforts. Hence, they start to understand and manage the complexity of the topic. Especially as there may be many differences internally: For instance, one department may have an “oasis scenario” while another may be in a “ground water” scenario, although it is within the same organisation.

Managerial solution: Instead of assuming that autonomy is a simple concept, you should therefore embrace the inherent duality of the concept. Position your organisation in the 2×2 matrix. Are there any internal differences among departments or employee groups? Only by understanding this complexity can you hope to actively manage it.

The bottom line is that autonomy is too important to be misunderstood or mismanaged. Autonomy is undoubtedly an important component for competing in a dynamic and uncertain environment. However, your future success demands active myth busting. Therefore, the decision to empower employees should start by questioning the related assumptions in the C-suite.

Carsten Lund Pedersen is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Marketing at Copenhagen Business School in Denmark where he researches B2B-strategy, employee autonomy, and business development in a digital age. He is also the author of “Applied Autonomy: A Practical Guide to Employee Autonomy” and “Empowering Employees: A How-To Guide for Assisting Autonomy.”

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