The Importance of Employee Autonomy

The case for giving employees autonomy in how to carry out their work has been backed up by psychological and management research for more than half a century. It may surprise you just how strong the case is—until you look in the mirror and think about what you would require to do great work face to face with customers every day.

First off, people need a reason to wake up in the morning—and ‘‘they pay me’’ is hardly the ideal alarm clock. Think about it this way: Let’s assume an employer pays approximately the same wage as competing employers do. But the employer also prescribes exactly how the job should be done, when it should be done, and where it should be done. Does this employer’s approximately-the-same-as-everyone-else’s wage really carry the day in this situation?

Unlikely. An employee with half a brain (and, by and large, that’s the minimum cranial content to look for in an employee) will sprint to any employer offering more freedom, freedom that includes:

  • Flexibility in when the job gets done (don’t tell me that parents who need to work an unconventional schedule are lesser workers; it just ain’t true)
  • Even more important, flexibility in how the job gets done: both on a day-to-day basis and in having a part in designing the overall structure of the work activities. This is an ethical imperative. If you don’t involve people in designing the jobs to which they devote their waking hours, you’re using employees as mere tools, for their labor. Even though you’re paying them, this kind of using of people is unconscionable.

A company needs the ability to respond to the unpredictable, ever changing, intensely individual, nuanced desires of customers. Consider this statistic from Cornell’s Center for Hospitality Research: There are an estimated five thousand customer/employee touch points every day in a moderate-sized hotel. There may be fewer touch points in your business, or, heaven help you, there may be more. To handle each of those touch points correctly requires an exceeding amount of psychological and intellectual flexibility, which will be hindered when employees know that management puts primary value on conformity.

I’m not, by the way, talking about lip service and window dressing here–posters on the wall and so forth. In fact, it’s counterproductive to even bother talking about empowerment if you’re going to continue to reward conformity. Which is, unfortunately, exactly what happens at many companies; they talk a good talk about employee empowerment, but compensate and allocate pats on the back differently:

  • Did an employee make the numbers this month (even if he had to finesse the books by pushing bad events to next month)?
  • Did he get everything—sorta—shipped on time (even if it means he didn’t take that extra minute to verify a shipping address and save the customer a lot of grief )?
  • Did the employee get customers off the phone in the call center ‘‘on time’’ (even though lingering longer could have led to a greater potential bond with the company)?

You want customer relations to be on the shoulders of your employees. But as long as you’re defining every little thing, and rewarding/punishing based on seemingly arbitrary and thus, inevitably, gamed criteria, you won’t get them to carry that responsibility.

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Micah Solomon
Micah Solomon

Business speaker, consultant and #1 bestselling business author Micah Solomon is known for his ability to transform business results and build true customer engagement and loyalty. Micah has been named by The Financial Post, “New Guru of Customer Service Excellence.”

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