Unleashed – Why letting your people do their own thing can reap rewards (and here’s how)

Back in 2009 Daniel Pink wrote a book called Drive, which examined the relationship between what science knows about motivation and what the business world does to produce it. There is, he claimed, a mismatch. How we motivate people in business has tended to be focused on a carrot and stick approach. We’ve got used to the idea that if you want your staff to perform better you give them more money, increase their perks or threaten them with the sack if they don’t meet their targets. But, Pink and others argue, this approach dulls thinking and blocks creativity.

If creativity and innovation are key to business success then it stands to reason that creativity should be encouraged at every turn and this simply cannot be done with carrots and sticks. Pink talks about Australian software company Atlassian, which allows employees to spend 20% of their time working on something unrelated to work. Google also famously implemented this. Both companies have reported that this intense autonomy has produced beneficial commercial outcomes.

Our real motivators it seems are autonomy, mastery and purpose. More and more startups are realising that it doesn’t matter if your staff are sitting across from you at all times as long as they’re delivering on their promises. They’re offering flexible working hours, less intensive observation and the freedom to make their own decisions and mistakes. They’re offering the chance to get better at their work in their own way and they’re offering a chance to be part of something bigger than themselves.

This is not only a demonstrably good managerial technique, it pays off in other ways too. Offering greater autonomy reduces managerial costs and simplifies management procedures. The time staff used to spend (or waste) feeding back on every task can be used to make the workflow more efficient.

Offering autonomy can also be great for crisis management. If you keep everyone around you asking “How high?” when you say, “Jump”, when the proverbial hits the fan they’ll be less likely to know what to do. Autonomous staff are more likely to take the initiative and more likely to fix a problem immediately than hang around waiting to go through multiple bureaucratic layers.

Of course, this autonomy only works if you recruit the people who you believe can rise to the challenge. The fact is that some people simply don’t want to use their initiative or don’t have any in the first place. Some people like to be told what to do at every step of the way. Whether you’re running a small Silicon Valley startup or a sowing the seeds of your network marketing empire, getting the right people in place up front and then allowing them to develop in their own way and at their own pace can reap huge rewards.

How to make autonomy work for your employees


1. Let them do the planning

Let the people working for you plan their goals as much as they can. That way they’re working to meet their own expectations and will, naturally, work harder.

2. Support them

Once they’ve identified their goals, support them in achieving them. Just because they’re autonomous doesn’t mean they couldn’t do with a bit of help now and again.

3. Let them make mistakes

Obviously you’re not going to sit back and watch a car crash happen but you can learn a lot by getting things wrong. Let your staff learn by experience even if you can see what might be ahead. You can’t make progress when you’re scared.

4. Communicate

Communicating with someone is different from breathing down their neck. Encourage autonomy but also encourage regular feedback. That way nobody’s left with any surprises.

5. Hire autonomous people

Not everyone responds well to autonomous working so make sure the people you choose to work with can operate in this way before you hire them in the first place.