How Leaders Can Inspire Autonomy And Engage Employees

by Susan Mazza | Posted | Leadership

How Leaders Can Inspire Autonomy And Engage Employees

As a leader you count on others to make and keep commitments. Unfortunately, most people find themselves in a daily exercise of taming an overwhelming to-do list: When something gets added, more often than not something has to give. Sometimes what needs to give is the very thing you are counting on.

How to determine what takes priority

The traditional answer is that the boss always takes priority. But these days, work isn’t done through a neatly orchestrated chain of command but through a complex set of daily interactions across the organization. It’s only when you manage people directly that you have the authority to delegate, which means your requests are likely to get moved toward the top of the priority list.

There are several issues with delegating: It can take away a person’s autonomy and demand compliance; it can also reset people's priorities in a way that has unintended consequences. Delegating can also become a missed opportunity to empower your employees to think and prioritize independently.

Now I am not suggesting delegation is all bad. It's an important skill and tool when managing others. But there is an alternative approach to assigning work that actually encourages and supports autonomy: you need to negotiate rather than simply hand-off work.

The art of negotiation

There are some things that will be non-negotiable because they simply need to get done. There are also unexpected and sometimes urgent needs that arise that can force a new item to the top of the priority list.

Yet there is probably more room for negotiation in your everyday requests than you may realize. For example, why not give people the room to negotiate a due date? This lets them assess their commitments so they can make a promise to you that they can keep, while still honoring their other responsibilities. Give people freedom to make a counteroffer and they may actually show you a better approach or alternative to what you are requesting.

The bottom line is when you ask someone to do something for you, but make it clear that you’re open to negotiation, you engage them in making strategic choices with you. This empowers them to choose what makes sense, instead of just saying yes because they feel they have to.

The power of autonomy

So the next time you need to delegate a task, consider what can be negotiated. Instead of going for a handoff, why not go for a handshake?

Make this simple, yet potent, change in your approach to assigning work and you’ll empower your people to be more autonomous. You might even be surprised by how much more they get done, and how they develop their leadership skills in the process.

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Find out how to combine on-the-job learning, coaching and feedback, and formal learning activities into your leadership development program.


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