How to Encourage Employee Autonomy—and Why That Should Matter to You as a Leader

UPDATED: September 28, 2023
PUBLISHED: October 2, 2023
Two business workers sitting at a desk in the office, smiling because they have employee autonomy

When you’re an employee, you crave autonomy. You want the freedom and empowerment to make—and own—decisions. Then one day, you’re promoted to manager. And you realize just how hard it can be to grant autonomy to direct reports, even though you were once in their shoes.

This is a normal reaction and not a reason to think you aren’t cut out for leadership. However, it can still take you by surprise. For instance, you may suddenly feel a desire to over-manage or micromanage your people. Why? Giving up control to others who may make mistakes can be tough. You know you need to trust and enable your team, but you’re reluctant all the same.

Speaking of trust, that’s another stumbling block to giving your employees autonomy. Trust takes a lot more work than just barking commands. Trust requires you to provide feedback rather than directives and allow workers to act on your company’s behalf (within well-defined boundaries, of course).

How can you overcome these obstacles and grant your employees the autonomy they’re asking for? The answer lies in a concept that you’re going to hear about again and again as a manager: open communication.

The correlation between communication and employee autonomy

Before diving into why communication is the solution to this problem, let’s talk a little more about autonomy in the workplace. Employee autonomy is the lifeblood of an organization’s creativity and innovation. When employees are entrusted to think critically and make choices that directly impact the work they’re doing, they feel a sense of purpose. After all, they’re challenging norms, taking risks and offering solutions on a daily basis.

It’s hard to imagine a better way to fight against disengagement than to give out some “autonomy raises.” Companies that nurture employee autonomy definitely have an edge over their peer businesses. Not only do they present groundbreaking strategies frequently, but they also create a workforce that’s fiercely loyal and focused because everyone feels like a part owner.

Communication’s role in fueling autonomy is to encourage both trust and accountability. Employees who are given the knowledge, resources and parameters they need to take ownership of their work by their bosses feel valued. They know their communication with their supervisors is genuine and transparent. At any time, they can ask for clarification on expectations or goals. Or, they can bring up subjects that are on their minds. 

Rather than a traditional hierarchical structure with their managers, employees with a deep sense of responsibility for their tasks and projects tend to forge almost mentor-mentee relationships with those who are “one rung up.” This makes for healthier relationships that buck the power struggles no one needs, wants or likes.

How to encourage employee autonomy and engagement

If you like the sound of bringing more autonomy to your team as a next-gen leader, try these techniques. They’ll help you incorporate clearer communication methods into all your employee interactions.

1. Make your expectations clear.

As a manager, you should always put a premium on setting expectations. For example, you might want to encourage an employee to take on a new project. But don’t just say, “Here’s the project. Run with it!” That’s a fast way for everyone to have a negative experience.

Instead, begin by offering up objectives and guidelines to the team member. A detailed project brief outlining the project’s purpose, aims and key deliverables can be a huge asset. Be sure to always clarify any potential pitfalls involved in the project upfront, as well as where the worker can find support.

2. Hold regular team meetings.

Holding team get-togethers helps you convey important information to everyone at the same time. You’ll get input at these meetings and provide employees with opportunities to share their thoughts. During your discussions, be sure to get insights and feedback on ongoing projects.

Want to take your managerial game up a notch? Hold routine check-ins with individual employees, too. Check-ins allow you to practice your active listening skills while you find out how your direct reports are handling their autonomy. Over time, these meetings will become part of your open communication environment and show employees that although they are working independently, they’re contributing to the wins of the whole organization.

3. Measure your employee autonomy efforts.

You can measure the success of added autonomy in several ways. First, you can assess the level of engagement and enthusiasm you’re seeing among your team. Are you noticing more employees taking ownership? Making thoughtful decisions?

Second, think about the initiative you’re seeing. Are workers being proactive about finding innovative solutions or setting (and meeting) ambitious goals? Is the quality, output and timeliness of work on the upswing? These are all signs that autonomy is taking hold. You can also conduct surveys or have private conversations with employees to find out how they feel about their level of autonomy.

As a boss, you want to make sure your team members have all the tools they need to feel great about what they do. Just don’t forget that one of those tools is autonomy—backed up by your commitment to exceptional communication.

Melanie Clark is the chief marketing officer of Abstrakt Marketing Group, a business growth company that provides lead generation solutions.

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