In the dictionary, the definition of autonomy is most often based on the core notion of self-government or self-determination. My experience in working with many organizations is that many equate autonomy with being trusted. It is often seen as the opposite of micromanagement. When a person in leadership is asked how they feel about working for someone, it may be viewed as a positive statement if they say, “I like it, they leave me alone.” This is another way of saying that the leader gives them autonomy. On the other hand, a comment like “I am micromanaged” can be interpreted as less than positive.
The way a word is defined in a dictionary may be interpreted differently by different individuals. If you are new on the job and I say, “We want to make sure you receive the needed training so you can be successful in your role,” some would likely agree that this is a very good thing. Others may take the early close supervision as being micromanaged.
How we view close management typically depends on circumstances. When a loved one is in surgery, we want the surgery to be closely managed. When we leave our child with a sitter for the first time, we want to make sure the sitter is on top of things. Most people think of micromanaging in terms of controlling aspects of a person’s work and decision making to an extreme degree. If close management is appropriate in some situations, it does not mean the same level will continue forever. The more trust that’s built, the less the need to micromanage there will be, and the more autonomy a person will gain.
My point is there are times when autonomy is good and times when it is not. The same is true of micromanaging.
I worked with a large organization that had more than a 100 presidents of different entities. They had me spend the day with 13 of them. These 13 individuals were going to pilot the process I was recommending to see if it made sense to take it throughout the entire system. I knew most of the 13 prior to the session. One CEO came up to me and said he was excited. Then, he asked that when I next spoke with the top corporate people (I was scheduled to so at lunch that day) would I encourage them to back off? This CEO said, “Corporate is always micromanaging.” I then had the opportunity to speak with another CEO and asked how she liked working for the system. She said she loved it. I asked her why? She stated, “They leave me alone.” This was the same corporate team, but two very different conversations.
At lunch without telling the corporate team why, I mentioned the name of CEO who felt left alone. I quickly heard from the group, “She is great. She always achieves her goals.” Later, I mentioned the other person who felt micromanaged. The comments were, “He is missing his goals and we need to stay on him. We put him in the pilot to see if it would help him achieve the goals.”
My take is that there is often a correlation between autonomy and achieving goals. Those who achieve goals will have much more autonomy than those that do not. Those who are not achieving the goals will get much more attention and may perceive this as being micromanaged…and it may be true.
If you desire autonomy, here are some tips.
- Clarify the outcomes your supervisor is expecting.Get into the details. The more precise the outcomes, the better. For example, what is the operating income or profit/loss for the department or organization? I have learned that profitable operations are provided more autonomy. Autonomy is earned.
- Hold up the mirror. (You know I would get the mirror in here!) If you are feeling micromanaged and don’t want to be, ask yourself these questions: Are you meeting all the goals? Are you meeting all the timelines? Do you receive questions on operational aspects? Your answer to this last point could mean you are not being proactive enough in communicating with your leader.
- Put yourself in the owner’s shoes. Think: Am I personally writing the check if the business needs money? I’ve worked with many small business owners over the years. When the company is losing money, they write a check. They may borrow against their mortgage to keep things going. Don’t be shocked if the person writing the checks gets very close to operations when outcomes are being missed. Most owners can go from a 30,000-foot view to a 3-inch view quickly. If you’ve never had to borrow money to hit payroll, or put your life savings at risk, it’s hard to understand the stress an owner feels. If you’ve never been in a place where a lack of profits means people will lose their jobs, it is hard to understand the pressure a CEO or owner feels. As a friend of mine says, “This is not the house money we’re playing with!”
- If you feel you need more autonomy or less oversight, ask your leader what you can do to earn it. I met with a leader, and they were upset they had not been promoted. My suggestion was as follows: Create a report that states the objective measures you were hired to move and explain how the measures have moved. This is not about activities; it is about outcomes. Ask what outcomes need to be achieved, and by when, so that a promotion is not in doubt. Be prepared for the answer.
Autonomy and micromanagement have upsides and downsides. A person can receive so much autonomy that they fail. In that case a leader might hear, “They did not support me.” Micromanagement can be hard if the reasons for it are not understood. In my experience, the best way to achieve the autonomy you seek is to achieve the expected results.
Finally, a “PS”: Even the best of leaders will at times fall short in results. Instead of sharing with your leader why the results were not achieved, share what you are doing to make up the missed results to achieve the overall goal. This is the kind of ownership mindset that often earns greater autonomy—not to mention that leader’s great appreciation.