Tag Archive for: leadership

A Sensible Discussion about Autonomy

Organisations continue to look at increasing the autonomy of competent employees to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy or enable greater personal discretion over when, where and how they perform their role. In both instances, measurable improvements are expected in employee alignment with organisational goals and an individual’s productivity.

Autonomy has its benefits and challenges and so in this article, I’ll use independent research and my leadership experience of over 20 years to discuss a sensible approach to autonomy.

A sensible discussion about Autonomy

What is Autonomy?

Simply put, autonomy is allowing staff to determine what actions should be taken and when, and where and how they produce their work.

In a recent blog, Work and Happiness[1], I described how happiness in the workplace depends on employees feeling a sense of purpose, community, and respect as a valuable and contributing member of their organisation.

Companies that empower their staff experience greater employee engagement and increased performance against goals and key performance indicators as a direct result of employees feeling a greater sense of ownership and accountability. In contrast, people with little freedom in how they perform their role can become disengaged, and companies can see productivity and job satisfaction suffer.

Is Autonomy on the Rise?

All indications show empowerment is an essential ingredient in creating and maintaining a productive and rewarding workplace: but is it increasing? According to AON’s 2015 Trends in Global Employee Engagement Report,[2] “The overall work experience is deteriorating – particularly regarding enablement, autonomy, and the sense of accomplishment.”

AON’s survey analyses many factors that directly affect employee engagement including autonomy. In both the US and Europe, their data show drops in autonomy between 5% and 6% between 2013 and 2014. In Australia, autonomy increased by 3% over the same period. So what can Australian employers do to continue that trend and reap the benefits of this valuable management tool?

When and Where Autonomy Works

For some occupations, autonomy can be limited. A retail employee may have discretion in the manner in which they greet their customers, but you certainly won’t be letting them take their cash drawer home at night to balance and reconcile.

In contrast someone in product development who designs new or improves existing products or services could have flexibility regarding how they go about those processes. They can use their discretion on where and how to focus their efforts rather than following a set of strictly-defined instructions or workflow models.


The most important factor to consider when determining autonomy is the experience and level of competency in the role. Competency levels define a level of skill and mastery. Low skill and mastery mean less autonomy and more direction: more skill and mastery mean less direction and more autonomy.

Determining how and where to provide autonomy requires careful consideration. In addition to the dictates of the position, autonomy is highly dependent on the employee’s individual strengths and weaknesses.

Experience and level of competency


Benefit or Detriment?

Can autonomy work in your firm? Research indicates that autonomy works best in stable organisations, where employees can perform their function with a high level of independence.

Organisations may fear that an autonomous employee pool will result in lower productivity, but a recent study shows the opposite may be true. A survey[3] by Nicholas Bloom, Professor of Economics at Stanford University, and Co-Director of the Productivity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research, followed a group of employees at China’s Ctrip, one of the country’s largest travel agents. Staff members were given the option to work their call center jobs from home. The surprising results: compared to the control group who stayed in the office, the productivity of the Work from Home Group increased by 13 percent and attrition was 50 percent lower than their work-in-the-office counterparts. The ability to simply control “where” the work was performed had a positive effect on employee performance as well as retention.

Implementing Autonomy

Shifting to a more autonomous structure can be challenging, particularly where there are a long-established hierarchy and strictly defined roles. Structural change can cause individuals to feel their level of responsibility or status is being eroded, particularly if those under their direction are being granted more independence.

Empathize with those managers, certainly, but explain that as autonomy increases across the organisation, the control they relinquish could lead to greater independence for themselves. Most managerial staff have the responsibility to perform their tasks in addition to directing others. With less need to micromanage staff, their ability to focus on their productivity can increase. Communicating openly about why change is happening and how it aligns with organisational goals is paramount.

Don’t assume all employees want greater autonomy: for some autonomy may result in deeper engagement and better performance in their role. Others may not enjoy the additional responsibility or may believe they lack appropriate skills.

Considerations when Implementing Autonomy

When introducing greater autonomy, I suggest a holistic approach: a necessary organisational support including learning and development should be provided.

Employee performance and comfort should be reviewed throughout the process as it unfolds. If adjustments are necessary, they can be incremental and easier to manage than an entire revamping or dismissal of the program. The key is to monitor how the process rolls out at each phase, so corrections can be made before they become problematic.

Conversely, if autonomy is not successful, there must be consideration given to rescinding this benefit if needed. Any reduction should be managed carefully. The employee must be given the reason for the shift with a high level of sensitivity. If autonomy is not successful because of business-related factors, rather than negative performance, candor and transparency are key to retaining productivity in the wake of removing autonomy.


Employee autonomy can be a double-edged sword. Too little can lead to staff members who feel their talents are unrecognized, their capabilities are minimized, and they are being micromanaged. Frustration and disengagement can result which invariably cause lower productivity. Too much autonomy can translate into an organisation that is highly busy but low on productivity. And, as non-directed employees work against each other, rather than moving in the same direction, anarchy can be the result.

Using autonomy responsibly, by role, competency, and skill level requires thoughtful consideration to reap the maximum benefits. For roles that require greater independence, I believe it’s imperative that learning needs be considered when increasing autonomy, along with well-defined expectations in place for the employee.

A careful review of the benefits to the company and the employee must be monitored on an ongoing basis, and thoughtful consideration must occur when removing or reducing autonomy if needed.

A prosperous balance can lie in an individualized mix of both empowerment and traditional management styles. Using autonomy successfully is a result of being aware of the needs of the company and the employee, and assuring that the level of independence enhances, rather than diminishes, engagement and productivity.


  1. Cognology, 2016 Work and Happiness https://cognology.com.au/work-and-happiness/
  1. Aon/Hewitt, 2015 Trends in Global  Employee Engagement http://www.aon.com/attachments/human-capital-consulting/2015-Trends-in-Global-Employee-Engagement-Report.pdf
  1. Roberts and Bloom, 2016 A Working from Home Experiment Shows High Performers Like It Better https://hbr.org/2015/01/a-working-from-home-experiment-shows-high-performers-like-it-better


Why new managers should always start by managing freelancers

Learning how to manage is difficult. Overnight, you’re given responsibility for a bunch of people and somehow you need to deliver a result. It’s stressful, scary and can end in failure – for the manager, the project or both.

I don’t think the process needs to be this difficult. There’s only a few skills – though I admit some will want to differ – that you need to be an effective manager of people. And all of these skills can be learnt and honed very effectively through managing small-scale projects with freelancers. With more freelancers in the economy than ever before, there’s plenty of opportunity.

What is the role of a manager?

At the core of a manager’s responsibilities is helping their employees to learn.

Employee learning is critical, because fundamentally every business result happens as a consequence of employees learning and refining their behaviour over time. Happy customers, financial results and high performance are all consequences of successful managers facilitating employee learning.

Put simply, you cannot be an effective manager if you can’t help your employees learn. (Or, if you can’t facilitate learning, you will be an ineffective manager).

As a result, the critical success factor for a new manager is how quickly they can build the skills to help their team learn effectively.

How do you help others learn?

Facilitating learning doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to ‘teach’. But it does mean that you must partner with employees to foster, and even drive their learning. Doing this requires two things:

  1. Setting expectations, and
  2. Giving feedback

When you break it down, this two-part ‘expectations / feedback’ process (repeated frequently over time) sits at the heart of all employee learning.

The learning loop and process

So in terms of skills, the first two things that a new manager needs to learn are:

  1. How to set good expectations, that are easily understood and actioned; and
  2. How to give good feedback, to make sure that expectations (and relative performance) are understood

In my view, an A1, gold-medal way to learn these two skills is through managing freelancers on small projects.

Why freelancing is such an effective tool for teaching managers how to drive learning

In order to deliver a successful outcome with a freelancer, you must set clear expectations and provide frequent feedback. Because there’s no broader context, the success of the entire project is contingent on the manager’s ability to communicate expectations that can be well-understood, and feedback on the project deliverables. Put another way:

If the project manager fails to set good expectations (that are easily understood and actioned) – then the project will fail.

If the project manager fails to provides good feedback (that make clear actual performance versus set expectations) – then the project will fail.

The success or failure of the freelance project provides an immediate feedback mechanism for the new manager. In a relatively safe and quarantined learning environment, the new manager can see the consequences of feedback and expectation setting for learning and project delivery.

In conclusion

At the simplest level, to manage means you must be able to bring out the best performance in others, and drive learning in those around you to do so. In teaching someone how to manage, you must first teach them how to facilitate learning.

As I’ve mentioned in this article, teaching emerging managers how to drive learning is extremely effective when they are managing freelancers on small projects. To deliver the project, new managers must learn how to drive learning through the expectations / feedback loop. It’s an investment that you’ll see pay off for the rest of their management career.

Have you used freelance projects to teach new managers how to drive learning? I’d love to hear about your experiences. Jump into the comments below or join the conversation on Twitter (@cognology).

Jon Windust

Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Talent management software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.

To build exceptional leaders, focus on these seven skills

The skills required for leadership don’t change through your career

We do a lot of work with Cognology clients in identifying the competencies that leaders require to succeed. It’s fascinating work. And through this process, I also get to hear a lot of assumptions about what people think it takes to succeed as a leader.

One of the most common assumptions is that as leaders progress through their career they need to develop a dramatically different set of leadership skills. After all, they’ll be taking on bigger and more varied projects. And they’ll be responsible for more and more people.

But this just isn’t the case. Whether you’re leading one person, or 100,000, the skills required are remarkably similar. Recent research into key competencies for leadership published by Harvard Business Review shows this. The study surveyed thousands of HR and business professionals on the skills leaders needed at each stage of their career. And the results were surprisingly consistent, regardless of the level of leadership.

The seven skills you’ll need with you at all times.

From the 332,860 people surveyed in the study, seven skills were picked almost twice as often as the remaining nine. So I don’t take up too much of your time (I could talk about these things all day!) I’ll give you some of my thoughts on the top seven skills:

  • Inspires and motivates others: this one’s a no brainer. How could you lead without being inspiring and motivational? If people look up to you and believe in you then they’re more likely to follow you.
  • Displays high integrity and honesty: again, fairly intuitive. If you work hard and apply yourself then the truth is all you need. How can you be a leader without being honest?
  • Solves problems and analyzes issues: how well can you think on your feet and solve problems on the spot? Are you able to analyze issues and stop them from becoming problems?
  • Drives for results: you want your results to be able to speak for themselves. Are you able to bring a project home and get the results required?
  • Communicates powerfully and prolifically: some argue that you can make anything happen if you just communicate the right way. How well can you articulate your ideas so people understand what your big goals are?
  • Collaborates and promotes teamwork: You’re the one bringing everyone together and making sure delivery works smoothly. How well can you can you work with others and get a team to work for you?
  • Builds relationships: your ability to build rapport with others. Can you find a way to connect and engage with other people?

You’ll find that these skills are complimentary to each other. Develop one and you’ll typically improve in other areas too. Think about how well you can solve problems when you drive for results. Your ability to inspire others is dependent on how well you can communicate.

Why you need to introduce all new and potential leaders to these skills.

Do you have an employee on the cusp of becoming an effective leader? Review these key competencies and see where they need improvement.

Break the requirements for the position down to its simple elements. Treat these key competencies as if they were the desired outputs for a project. They may already have these skills, but are they at the level they need to be?

In our own article on the importance of competencies, we use the example of the difference between the ability to craft a pitch for a Public Relations Assistant and a Public Relations Manager.

An assistant must be able to craft a pitch, in that they understand what is required to craft one, but a manager must be able to craft one that is engaging and compelling. The same skill is required, but at a higher level.

Use these skills for ongoing development, feedback, and coaching.

Recognition of these skills is essential for development. It becomes easier to assess the skills that employees need when you can put them into objective terms.

Using these skills you can almost predict which employees will advance, based on the leadership skills they possess at the moment.

This removes the guesswork out of training employees in areas they need improvement. Once you can articulate the areas an employee is lacking in, you can help plan, manage and coach for the development required.

Do you agree with this list of key competencies? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the competencies required for leadership in your organisation. Jump into the comments below and let’s get the conversation going.

Photo Credit: Sara&Joachim&Mebe Used under license CC BY-SA 2.0