When we started Secret Source, we thought the secret to being a good outsourcing partner would be to perfect the art of requirements gathering and then get our team to do exactly what the client wanted without bothering them. We believed that by giving our team the clearest, most prescriptive instructions, they would be able to better deliver what the client wanted.
However, without knowing it, by micromanaging our team, by limiting their autonomy, we had hindered their creativity and their ability to perform to their full ability. Ultimately we had reduced their job satisfaction, their happiness, and the quality of the work they produced.
In 2019, we changed the way we worked and moved to a more collaborative model where we worked side by side with our clients, stopping giving prescriptive instructions and instead giving our team autonomy and ownership of their own work. It transformed our company and the work we produced.
What is autonomy in the workplace?
Autonomy is giving your team the freedom to choose how to solve a problem. It is allowing them to fail and giving them more control of their own work instead of telling your team what to do and how to do it.
However, you also cannot just leave your staff to just get on with their work with no support or supervision so …
How do you give your team autonomy while still maintaining control?
Research has shown that providing help to employees leads to better performance than leaving them to work alone. Therefore, even though you should give your teams autonomy you should also give them help. However there is a fine balance between too much help (micromanagement) and too little (not supporting enough). It is important to provide assistance in a way that does not undermine their sense of independence.
But, how can you help without micromanaging?
The Harvard Business Review conducted an extensive study into how leaders offer help without being perceived as micromanagers and they uncovered three strategies:
Time your help so it comes when people are ready for it
Contrary to popular wisdom, weighing in before a task starts (prevention is better than the cure) is not the best method. According to the HBR study, it is best to first allow your team to work on the task and understand the challenge. Then, when you see the team struggle, don’t jump in and solve it, just let them know you are there to help. Teams that are offered help after a problem arose are much more likely to use that help than those that receive it beforehand, probably because they now better understand the challenge at hand.
Clarify that your role is to be a helper
Managers have many roles, and when a manager steps in to help, employees can often mistake this as the manager observing and evaluating the performance of their team. Therefore, when you want to help your team, it is essential that they understand that you are there in a helping role and not there to check their performance. This is essential so that your team has the psychological safety of knowing that they won’t be blamed for anything a team member does. Team members that feel safe will likely be more truthful, which will ultimately make helping a lot more productive.
Align the rhythm of your involvement—its intensity and frequency—with people’s specific needs
When help is required, it is critical that this help is delivered at a rhythm that will not feel like micromanaging, and in a way that does not feel like the manager is sweeping in to “save the day”. According to the HBR research this can be done in two ways: “intensive guidance in the short term or intermittent path clearing over a prolonged period.”
Intensive guidance is when a manager gives concentrated help over a short period. This help has a danger of becoming micromanaging but, when delivered in the role of a helper and only when asked, it is very gratefully received.
Path clearing is when you help for half an hour or so every few days. For this to work successfully, the manager must stay up to date with the project so when they do intervene the advice / help is totally relevant.
When people feel they have control over their destiny they will perform better and be happier. Ellen Langer’s famous study in an old people’s home showed that when the residents were given the freedom to care for their own plants, they lived longer and were happier. The same results can be found in teams in the workplace. When people feel they have autonomy and they have ownership over their work, performance and team happiness improves. However, you have to be careful, as teams that are left alone, and not given any help, do not perform as well. So help needs to be given, but only in a way that maintains the team’s autonomy. Advice should only be given when asked for and from someone who is clearly recognised as a helper and at a rhythm that is not perceived as overbearing.
Many people now work remotely and, if left alone, there is a danger that they can feel isolated, unsupported and even abandoned. Help is therefore needed and welcomed, however, it needs to be delivered in the right way.