Don’t Give Them All the Answers: Putting Autonomy to Work

If you’re a business leader who feels more like a schoolteacher, you’re doing something wrong.

When an employee comes to you with a question, it may seem counterproductive to tell him to figure it out on his own, but sometimes that’s the best thing a leader can do.

It might be easier and make you feel more comfortable to give them all the answers, but by allowing employees to find the answers themselves, you’re empowering them to be resourceful and learn from their mistakes, which is more beneficial in the long run.

Leader assigning responsibilities

The Benefits of Withholding Answers

Having all the answers is great, but that doesn’t mean you have to share them. While it’s sometimes necessary to give specific directions to employees — and leaders often feel obligated to do so — making a habit of telling employees precisely what to do can stifle creativity and innovative thinking. Asking employees what they would do promotes some beneficial characteristics and core principles, such as:

  • Active problem solving. Following specific directions doesn’t require much thought. When employees get into a routine of asking questions and receiving answers, they miss out on valuable opportunities to think strategically about potential solutions. Active problem solving is a skill that has to be cultivated, and employees can’t develop this skill if you provide all the answers.
  • Innovation. Employees who have the power to pursue their own ideas will be more passionate about their work, which will translate into quality products and plans. When you hand out all the answers, you’re only promoting one perspective — yours — and innovation doesn’t come from people blindly following directions; it comes from motivated, thinking individuals.
  • Teamwork. Relinquishing control to employees allows them to embrace team members and collaborate to solve problems. One individual on a mission will get something done, but a team working together will accomplish more.
  • Accountability. An employee following directions only feels responsible for the completion of the task, not the outcome. Offering more freedom to employees will create a feeling of direct responsibility for the results of their work.
  • Trust. You should always consider the message you’re sending to your employees with your actions. When you empower employees, they feel like you have faith in their abilities, which fosters a sense of mutual trust within the company. However, empowering employees doesn’t mean you should leave them hanging when they seek help for a problem they can’t solve on their own. Give them the freedom to solve the problems they can, but be there for guidance when they need it.

Empowered staffs

4 Strategies for Empowering Employees to Think Independently

Engaged employees help their companies outperform those without engaged employees by as much as 202 percent. But employees usually don’t become engaged on their own. Use these four strategies to encourage independent thinking and creative problem solving:

  1. Get company-wide buy-in. When solving difficult problems, ask your employees for suggestions. You’ll be surprised by what they can come up with when presented with a challenge.
  2. Allow employees to pursue independent projects. Giving employees the opportunity to pursue their own ideas promotes innovation and shows them that you value their ideas. When employees see their ideas come to life, they also see the impact their work has on the company’s growth. LinkedIn’s [in]cubator is a great example of a program that does this.

    While policies that allow side projects really do work, if they’re just not feasible for your company, try giving employees more flexibility on the projects they work on. IDEO is a design firm that allows employees to bring their passions into the workplace by participating in varied tasks through their “white space projects.”

  3. Promote healthy competition. Creating weekly competitions or goals for teams to meet can motivate them to work harder and think strategically, especially if there’s an incentive for winning or meeting the goal.

    About every six weeks, Facebook holds an all-night hackathon where employees can explore new ideas they may not have time for otherwise. They’ve even gotten their users involved, awarding a limited number of T-shirts to the people with the best ideas.

  4. Eliminate unnecessary rules or barriers. As long as you hold employees accountable for their work, what do you really get out of limiting vacation and sick days and making work hours rigid? You get sick people spreading germs and burnt-out employees who feel restrained.

    If you offer flexible scheduling with clear expectations about accountability, however, employees will appreciate the trust and autonomy. Buffer is one of many companies making remote working work for them. This company encourages its employees to work wherever they want — literally — as long as they’re happy and productive.

As a leader, it’s your job to maximize your employees’ potential. They’re smart, capable people. That’s why you hired them in the first place! Don’t fail to take advantage of their unique skills and expertise. Offering them the chance to take charge and show you what they can do will reveal the true leaders within your company and allow you to create a culture of innovators and creative thinkers.

About the Author: Matthew Gordon is President and CEO of The Gordon Group, a holding company that primarily manages GraduationSource and Avanti Systems USA. Gordon strives to foster positive corporate culture and empower young minds.

Photo credits: Highways Agency, le temple du chemisier


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