Autonomy vs Micromanagement

As you hopefully know so far, I am dead set against micromanagement. I had extensively written about the perils of micromanagement (Click HERE and HERE to read past articles on micromanagement). In fact I believe that businesses have a great deal to gain, from a performance perspective, when adopting empowerment and autonomy. However should such autonomy be limitless?

How much autonomy is too much autonomy? Recent research suggests that it’s possible to take autonomy too far. Interestingly, research indicates that some — but not total — autonomy yields the best performance results. Work teams that weren’t allowed to choose their ideas and the way they work performed the worst, but those with full autonomy performed only marginally better. Conversely, the teams that were given some autonomy significantly outperformed both those with full autonomy and those with no autonomy.

Why might this be?

Research indicates that the main factor driving these effects was that the teams with some autonomy were best able to match ideas to team members or could choose ideas based on members’ interests or even could strategically choose teammates who were best suited to work on the idea.

On the other hand teams without any autonomy have no way to do any kind of matching and thus had a great challenge to match teams and ideas effectively when both were up for discussion.

Finally teams with full autonomy on everything, with no limits, fueled overconfidence, which is known to negatively impact performance. In fact research clearly indicates that teams with total autonomy are most likely to overestimate their own abilities.

However it is important to make sure that we do not do the common mistake of mixing happiness with performance. Research indicates that the more employees are given autonomy the happier they say they are and so employees with full autonomy are the happiest. However, despite extensive literature around the connection between positive emotions and higher performance, there are various researched conclusions that the happiest employees do not register the highest performance.

Therefore the question that business leaders should ask is not whether they should give their teams autonomy, but what kind of autonomy they should give them. Autonomy is neither all-good nor all-bad. Research indicates that full autonomy seldom pays off and so managers can experiment to gain clarity around which kind of decisions benefit from more guidance and which are better left to the employees’ discretion.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to determining exactly how much autonomy to grant your team. Instead, managers should embrace a more fluid approach to determining how key decisions will be made. This means moving past black-and-white philosophies and thinking critically about which areas will benefit from autonomy — and which will not.

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