The 4th industrial revolution debate across Autonomous Leadership

I recently had a very interesting conversation with a PhD in behaviour science – we were actually debating the issues and positives across micromanagement, after he had read my blog, ‘Is micromanagement delusional or can it be effective’, whilst I wrote this blog back in 2015, there currently appears to be much discussion around leadership and the 4th industrial creation of autonomous leadership, some genius believes autonomous leadership is the answer to ineffective leadership.

I thought it was time to refresh my thinking and look into the negatives and positives, and why autonomous leadership should be deployed across business.

Most leaders want employees who take the initiative, get involved, make decisions and generate ideas. In fact, because your team is likely made up of educated, competent, seasoned employees (some of whom you may have hand-selected), it’s natural to expect that they would need a little direction to take the proverbial ball and run with it. You have a vested interest in their success because, when your team performs well, everyone wins.

Likewise, employees of all generations share a desire to work autonomously toward the communicated vision. No one wants to feel as if they’re operating under someone else’s thumb, especially team members who are smart, ambitious and motivated.

If autonomy is an essential ingredient for promoting employee engagement and motivation, and given that both leaders and employees desire empowered environments, what keeps leaders from encouraging self-sufficiency in their employees? The short answer is a skewed perception of reality.

The breakdown often begins when leaders don’t see their employees making decisions and taking action quickly enough, or in the same way the leader would do it. In this situation, you understandably might question the motivation behind the employee’s lack of autonomy. Some executives I’ve coached have told me they wonder if their employees don’t care, if they’re not ambitious or competent enough to do the job. They often assume their employees need or want more direction because they seem to require help or feedback before moving forward. In other words, leaders often feel the problem is with their employees, not them.

Autonomy in the workplace is hard to implement and easy to abuse. It requires managers and employees to trust each other and communicate on projects, which can be challenging in their own rights. Too often, a communication breakdown leads to micromanaging or missed deadlines.

By tapping into information-sharing channels and mutual trust, it’s possible to increase team autonomy in the workplace. Here are a few examples of companies channelling information well and how employees become more autonomous because of it.

Many leaders instinctively want complete visibility of their team.

This is a recipe for micromanagement.

Interesting statement by Dr David Rock from The NeuroLeadership Institute, when he said: “Although we may not think about it often, everyone experiences the workplace as a social system. People who feel betrayed or unrecognized at work, experience it as a neural impulse, as powerful and painful as a blow to the head.”

He goes on to say that employees tend to limit their commitment and engagement if they feel undervalued. “They become purely transactional employees, reluctant to give more of themselves to the company, because the social context stands in their way.”

This type of situation can be the root cause of a low-performing team. Think about times that you have been part of such a team. It quickly demotivates everyone, plus rectifying the situation is very difficult once it takes hold. Your managerial challenge is to provide conditions where such a situation is less likely to happen, and giving the team a measure of autonomy in how to carry out their work is key.

Based on research and anecdotal evidence, there’s no denying workplace autonomy promotes employee happiness. A workplace survey by Gensler concluded that employees given more choices are more satisfied and higher performing than counterparts with fewer freedoms. Autonomy often inspires a culture of innovation, and allows employees an opportunity to become more self-sufficient. For executives, this means less time overseeing daily operations and more time focused on strategy and growth. But for a company that still hasn’t shifted to an autonomous environment, the idea of giving employees so much freedom can be a little unsettling.

Autonomy is quickly becoming the norm. Employees not only desire greater control over their work style and environment — they expect it. By exercising the above suggestions, you can help create a culture of freedom and choice without sacrificing efficiency, productivity and structure.

In order to make your team more autonomous, you need to establish communication and trust. Without communication, you’re leaving your employees without a safety net while your employees are working in isolation

Let’s look at some of the disadvantages of employee empowerment:

Lack of experience increases risk

While the handing down of responsibility promises to improve speed, agility and productivity, a concern is that decisions are now being made by less experienced and less expert personnel. This can increase the number of mistakes made and put reputation at risk.

The risk of work practices falling into chaos must be tackled by proper training, and by ensuring that supervisors maintain organizational standards. These standards must incorporate an organization’s values and beliefs: care must be taken that employees do not work in accordance with individual values that may be divergent to the corporate mission and vision.

Potential for decreased efficiency

When people are given the autonomy to make their own decisions, those decisions cease to be uniform. This lack of coordination can lead to problems down the line.
It is also the case that autonomous employees may decide to work slower on days when they feel distracted or lack the energy to forge ahead. Where some workers are performing more productively than others, without being rewarded for doing so, internal friction can increase. If not dealt with, this can cause confrontation or a spiral to the bottom as all workers decide to work at the pace of the slowest and least productive team member.

Failing relationships

Empowerment inevitably leads to a flatter, more streamlined management structure. The risk here is that professional relationships become blurred, and boundaries of authority become broken. This might require greater control over employees, not less.

Accountability issues may arise, leading to a blame culture that, if left unchecked, will lead to further discontent and an environment of mistrust. In such a situation, it is likely that employees will decide to take less responsibility for fear of repercussions should things go wrong.

Poor decision-making
If a team lacks the individuals with skills commensurate to the project, tasks, and work required, decision-making will be poorer. This will be to the detriment of the organization, as poor solutions lead to decreasing productivity and internal conflict.

Are you really a leader if nobody is following?

As a leader, you should have an element of magnetism to your style. What do I mean by that? I mean that people should be drawn to you; they should want to be around you – by choice, that is, not because it’s their job to take your direction. The greatest leaders have a natural following of people that are pointed in the same direction; people that want to accomplish the same goals; people that want to be on your journey!

These relational principals apply across the board. Just because you’re in a leadership position doesn’t mean that you’ve attained perfection. You’re human. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to have questions, and people will respect you more for owning that. Your transparency and honesty open the doors for you to engage others and rely on their strengths and expertise. Your team will feel needed and valued by you, and they will likely jump into help compensate for your weaknesses.

In addition to being authentic about yourself, leaders should realise the importance of being open and honest about the state of their organization, current and future. Leaders should be clear and candid in their communication to give everyone an accurate assessment of what’s going on and what’s needed to improve. This openness and authenticity create understanding and direction, and it minimizes the chaos of uncertainty.

The truth of the matter is that we cannot all be the leader in charge.

The end result is that many people want to be led. They need someone who can be visionary and inspirational.

Perhaps there is some overlap with this and some of the other points already mentioned, but I thought it was important to say it in this particular way. The reason for that is because this puts the focus on understanding what your people need. To do this, you must get to know your people. You have to ask questions, listen and engage. This is a critical component to understanding people and meeting their needs.

Which brings me on to ‘we are a direct reflection of our experiences’ – the way we behave and not all organisational cultures are created equal. Your company’s behaviors and norms can be unhealthy and unsupportive. But take heart: your organisation has the power to build a high-performance culture. A high-performance culture has behaviors and norms that lead your organisation to achieve superior results by setting clear business goals, defining employees’ responsibilities, creating a trusting environment, and encouraging employees to continuously grow and reinvent themselves.

Employee engagement is a direct outcome of a high-performance company culture. Why? Because high-performance cultures clearly outline behaviors and norms that are healthy and supportive.

Employees clearly understand their culture and what is expected of them. They feel connected. They feel involved. They feel supported. And, therefore, they feel engaged. A company that takes its people seriously will have a business strategy, vision, mission and values.

It’s alarming to know that eighty-seven per cent of HR leaders state that company culture and engagement are their biggest challenges. It makes sense. There are several reasons culture and engagement are rising as relevant challenges for organisations. To start, employer branding has become more and more important. Employees are very much like customers. With the changes in the job market, employees have greater opportunities than they had in the past.

This puts employers in the position of having to actively attract employees, all while employees’ perceptions about work are changing. For the most part, employees no longer prioritise staying at a single job until retirement and instead are very uncommitted, they are more likely to choose a job that interests them and aligns with their own passion and values at a moment in time. Your organisation needs to regularly invest in culture to regularly see the resulting engaged employee base.

By providing training opportunities, the latest in technological advancements, managerial support, and an open mind about what makes a great workplace environment, companies can evolve to keep pace with employees’ expectations to really drive success. The key is that this is an ongoing process. Engagement doesn’t just happen – you have to focus employee needs over time and use that to drive a strong culture, a good way to achieve this is with an HR development plan, which has the engagement of senior leadership, management and the board of directors.

Final thought, by supporting people we employ or our family members to develop themselves so that we can each reach a state where we are conscious that the interior work is as important as our exterior communication skills.

By learning to deploy those skills to give individual context and insight to host other conversations, which would be vastly more helpful than the kind of conversation that happens in the superficial contextual layer.

We nominally share a language with others; sometimes not even that. Language isn’t helping us bridge the divide of ideological differences effectively any more. Embodied dialogue methods, like constellations and storytelling, can open new perspectives in people’s minds.

I am not convinced in my lifetime that an intuitive or compassionate AI, or robot will even come close to this objective, we need better leadership to drive home performance and growth outcomes, based around passionate, committed and determined humans.

A great quote by John Maxwell, where he states:

“If you are leading others and you’re lonely, then you’re not doing it right. Think about it. If you’re all alone, that means nobody is following you. And if nobody is following you, then you’re not really leading.”

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