Exploring Autonomy

I recently incorporated a series of questions in my weekly one-on-ones to generate conversation when there's not much on the agenda. A couple of weeks ago, two senior designers chose to answer the question: What is your favorite part of your role? Why is that?

Both designers gave answers along the lines of:

“Autonomy. I love having control over my work and day while also having your support. I know that if I need help, you’ll be there, but otherwise, I can hold my own. I feel like I’ve earned it, and that feels good.”

It felt great to hear this. This sense of autonomy is not a result of me suddenly handing over the keys. It is the culmination of continually working toward a culture where the team has space to make their own decisions while also having the support of their manager or mentor when they need it.

Reflecting on this topic reminded of an excerpt from one of my favorite books, Turn the Ship Around:

"SHORT, EARLY CONVERSATIONS is a mechanism for CONTROL. It is a mechanism for control because the conversations did not consist of me telling them what to do. They were opportunities for the crew to get early feedback on how they were tackling problems. This allowed them to retain control of the solution. These early, quick discussions also provided clarity to the crew about what we wanted to accomplish. Many lasted only thirty seconds, but they saved hours of time."

Autonomy

Confidence = Control

As managers, sometimes we think we create space for "autonomy" by assigning tasks to our team and expecting them to tackle the work independently. This approach does not give the team control if they are merely taking orders. The issue is that the minute they hit a roadblock, they'll return to receive new orders rather than actively working toward a solution on their own.

People feel good working autonomously when they feel in control, and they believe in and understand the work as much as their manager. What contributes to feeling in control? Control is a product of confidence in decision-making.

Knowledge + Feedback = Confidence

We're most confident when we have the knowledge we need and can count on consistent feedback along the way. Without feedback, there's no sure way to know if what we're doing is working or not. When there's a void in feedback, we tend to create narratives about our performance and start to doubt our decisions. That doubt chips away at our confidence, and eventually, the thought of working autonomously can be pretty intimidating.

I always try to give feedback in real-time. For example, I'll make sure to take a few minutes to review feedback right after a big presentation, regardless if it went well or not. Positive feedback reinforces good decisions. Critical feedback teaches us how to make better decisions next time. When feedback about a situation comes after too much time has passed, details get lost, and we may forget why the feedback was even important.

Trust

I know my team will never feel like they have control unless we trust each other. I have to trust that they'll make thoughtful decisions; they have to trust that I'll be there to support them, no matter what happens. Support means giving them constructive feedback, helping them see a situation from different perspectives, and coaching them in their craft.

Below are three methods I've found effective in building a foundation for trust with my team.

  1. Continuous coaching. Ongoing one-on-ones are helpful in checking in how on each team member is feeling and maintain a clear line of communication. It's important to go beyond "things are good" and dig deeper to uncover more insights, especially early on. Over time, trust builds and these insights will likely come through more freely. One-on-ones do not replace real-time feedback; they exist to eliminate blind spots and make sure there's always an open channel for support.
  2. Responsibilities alignment. I've learned that simply clarifying and re-clarifying responsibilities with team members can go a long way. What are they responsible for, and how do you expect to work with them? Who is in charge of presenting the work? Alignment can even get into more micro-level tasks. Who will be making the final decision on the website's animation? Once there's alignment, it's important not to change course without a conversation. Jumping in to take over a task can quickly erode trust.
  3. Vision-setting. Establishing a vision for every project (this does not need to be a formal, lofty statement) helps give the team a guiding light and understand what they're trying to accomplish together. Not only does a vision help make feedback more productive, but it also allows for more thoughtful decision-making and helps everyone feel more in control.

Here are a few posts related to the topics covered in this note: