“If I give more freedom – people will just take advantage!”

“If I give more freedom - people will just take advantage!”

As soon as I talk about flexibility, self-management, or any kind of freedom-based work, the first statement I hear from business owners is; “If I give my team more freedom, people will just take advantage!”

The fear is so strong in these businesses that despite the data and research revealing that high-performing teams thrive with a high level of autonomy, they continue to create controlling cultures that restrict people. I often liken this response to freedom to a chain smoker. Extreme I know, but with all the health research and quite clear impact that smoking has on their health, smokers continue to smoke. Not only because it’s addictive, but because it’s become a habit. Even though they know better, they can’t stop the habit. 

Deep down we all know that when we’re given the freedom to get on with our work, we’re more focussed, productive and ultimately more fulfilled. Yet the habit of suffocating people’s potential, and being hyper controlling continues.

The particular fear of being taken advantage of, stems from a lack of trust. If managers and bosses had to be really honest – few could wholeheartedly say that they trust people in their teams. You can’t have freedom without trust.

What many leaders don’t realise is that this is a fear-based leadership approach. One that is more parental, and over-cautious, rather than one that is empowering and collaborative. Leaders fall into the trap of seeing themselves as parents to their employees; perhaps overly responsible, critical, or even overly caring.

With this parental mindset in place, leaders feel it’s impossible to encourage any kind of freedom or autonomy because it would feel like letting go of the reins completely and letting anarchy ensue.

But this isn’t the case. So I want to share why autonomy is vital; not only for the future of your organisation, no matter the industry you are within, but how you can begin to take the steps necessary to building autonomous, high performing teams. My hope is that after reading this you may have moved from a critic of autonomy to at least someone who is willing to experiment with it.

What is autonomy?

Autonomy is the freedom to make informed choices. As adults we make autonomous decisions and choices every day. What to eat for dinner, who to vote for in an election, which brand of supermarket to shop in for the best deals etc 

We make autonomous choices on a daily basis, but at work we are rarely given the opportunity to make any choices or decisions about our own work. 

A great explanation of autonomy at work comes from Shauna Kelley.

“Autonomy in management means there is a great deal of freedom that allows choices in the workplace. A manager who grants an employee autonomy generally outlines the goal of a project but allows the employee to figure out the best way to achieve the goal.” 

To put it bluntly, micro-management is the evil witch to the good and gracious fairy godmother that is autonomy.

Now before you start panicking, feeling like your office is about to become the wild west where people are just doing whatever they want, hold your horses. There is far more that has to go into autonomy than just ‘freedom’. It is not some laissez faire environment. 

Just like our everyday lives where there are also laws, and cultural etiquette, for example, we all know the rules about which side of the road to drive on in our place of residence; we also need guidelines and boundaries at work. However, for too long these guidelines have instead been restrictive, overly-controlling and enforced from top-down. 

The first step in any shift to more freedom is knowing the boundaries. They not only keep teams safe in their decisions and work, but also keep the company safe.

Why is autonomy important?

Autonomy breeds ownership, when we feel like we have made a choice about a project, a goal, or how things get done, we are more likely to feel accountable to our choices – after all, who is there to blame but ourselves?

Big tech brands such as Spotify, and Google have already begun to play with freedom-based working. In some instances teams can self-select the projects they want to work on, the teams they work with, as well as set their own goals and objectives. 

Teams who have been part of these experiments have seen higher levels of ownership and creativity, ultimately leading to more innovative ideas.  

When teams have more knowledge about what needs to be achieved, and how their work impacts the company, you have motivated individuals who see the purpose of their work. This all drives team agility and creates an environment where organisations are far more sustainable. 

The power of autonomy comes from intrinsic motivation. When a person is intrinsically motivated, they have an internal desire to act, this can be for fun or the challenge of it. They are not acting because of external pressures or rewards – which is how most companies try to ‘motivate’ their employees. It’s the classic carrot or stick, punishment or reward situation. 

At an individual level, intrinsic motivation includes competence (ability), autonomy (choice and independence to pursue interesting work), and purpose (why it matters). When all of these things are present within a workplace culture you have far more drive and ambition than any reward scheme can influence. 

Imagine the cost saving, and innovation your business could have if you moved towards freedom rather than complicated rewards packages that have to keep getting more and more elaborate.



How to give more autonomy?

Here I want to share some steps you can take to ease your mind about moving towards a more freedom-based workplace culture. Giving people more freedom is a shift that takes time and needs many layers of work before it will fully be embraced. As the leader in your organisation you must create the right environment for autonomy to thrive. 

Build trust

Trust and psychological safety are the bedrock of all strong workplace cultures, and this has to be in place before you can begin to experiment with any freedom-based approaches. 

Whether you’re considering a shorter workweek, increased co-creation or self-management, there has to be a strong foundation of psychological safety before you can begin the journey.

The work begins on building trust. 

Ask yourself the following questions; 

  • Do my team trust me? 
  • What can I do to show my team I am trustworthy? 
  • Am I ready to have open, honest conversations with my team? 
  • Am I ready to be trusting and have empathy even when my team fails? 

You may also want to visit this blog on psychological safety where I’ve shared my details about how you can foster trust within your company culture.

Define purpose

It’s hard to have freedom and use it wisely, if we don’t know what our purpose is? 

Too often teams fall into inertia because they don’t actually know what they’re meant to be working towards. They have zero understanding of what the goal or objective is to their work.

It’s easy when we’re in this place to have people doing nothing, or simply doing the same day-to-day tasks and not moving towards anything meaningful. 

In order to truly unleash autonomy you have to come together to define your purpose. Why do you exist, and what are you trying to achieve?

Ask yourself the following questions;

  • Do my team know our shared purpose? 
  • Is our shared purpose something we all understand? 
  • Did we create this purpose together? 

Clear boundaries

As I mentioned earlier we need clear boundaries and guidelines in order to feel safe in having more freedom. This goes for the individual and the company. If everyone is to fully embrace any type of freedom-based work we need to know where the line is. What can be done, and what can’t be done. 

There are many exercises you can do as a team to decide on what your boundaries can be, but really it’s about having a conversation first about your expectations of each other, and what as a team you feel works. For example, deciding on when update meetings will be had, deciding what communication channels you will use. 

It may seem like you’re going down to the macro level here, but there can be no ambiguity or assumptions, as this only leads to frustration and eventually things stalling. 

Co-creating your boundaries together is vital to ensure everyone is onboard. Everyone needs to contribute, because these are the rules you’re all agreeing to work with. 

Creating more autonomy isn’t an overnight roll out, you have to take a considered approach. Otherwise it will feel risky, and uncertain, and there will not be the psychological safety in the environment for people to fully embrace this new way of working. 

Autonomy is proven to lead to more productivity, efficiency and sustainability. It’s no quick fix, and will not be an easy path to follow, but if you’re serious about creating a company that can withstand the challenges of a volatile world you would be wise to embrace autonomy as soon as possible. 

Liberty Mind
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    About The Author

    Lizzie Benton is a people and culture specialist who supports organisations in developing a unique company culture and building engaged teams. Lizzie has been recognised as a millennial changing the world of work, and has been featured in the Metro, HuffingtonPost and has spoken across the UK on employee engagement. When not consulting or running a workshop, Lizzie can be found in rural Lincolnshire enjoying afternoon tea and fresh air.