Abracadabra: The magical impact of autonomy

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By Dan Wyant

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about employee engagement and how to make our organization a better place to work. In doing so, I revisited Tracy Maylett’s book “Engagement Magic,” which is a provocative approach to employee engagement.

Maylett defines engagement as “an emotional state where we feel passionate, energized and committed toward our work. In turn, we fully invest our best selves — our hearts, spirits, minds and hands — in the work we do.” He also says the book is about “what makes an organization tick, and what ticks people off.”

He uses the acronym MAGIC to represent five components of employee engagement — meaning, autonomy, growth, impact and connection. Of these, autonomy seems particularly relevant in light of the pandemic. Maylett looks at four types of autonomy:

  • Spatial — the power to control the environment or space in which you work.
  • Social — the power to control who you work with.
  • Temporal — the power to control when you work.
  • Task — the power to control how you do your work and set your own milestones.

Autonomy doesn’t mean working in isolation or doing whatever you want whenever you want. It’s up to the organization to define responsibilities and give employees direction. But after you’re in the role and know what your job is, then managers should be there to support you, but not get in your way.

My leadership style has always been to delegate and create a lot of freedom. However, my thinking has gone further down that path.

One of the biggest business lessons from COVID is that far more people can work remotely than leaders previously imagined. Admittedly, I haven’t been a huge advocate of telecommuting in the past, partly because I always enjoyed going to the office and felt more productive there. And I probably believed that other people couldn’t work from home because I found it distracting, which wasn’t fair. Yet last year when our Cassopolis headquarters and Lansing office were closed for several weeks, I created a space at home where I could be efficient and effective. After a while, I was surprised how comfortable I felt. More important, I saw that many of our staff were able to be even more productive by telecommuting rather than working from their regular offices.

Temporal autonomy is another topic where I’m changing my thinking. Our organization introduced a flex-time policy more than a decade ago. Some people work five 8-hour days, some work four 10-hour days, and others spread their 40 hours across the week. Yet I think it’s important to go beyond that and recognize that everyone has their own body clock and peak performance varies dramatically among individuals. Add to that the increasing complexity of social structure, and I think we need to relax the emphasis on the number of hours put in and instead focus on what’s getting done. This is especially important for parents with young children who are juggling work schedules with school schedules — or even more challenging — with virtual school.

Neuroscience tells us when people experience a lack of control, their perception of uncertainty is aroused, which raises stress levels. An ongoing lack of autonomy can result in a slew of negative consequences — loss of time, energy and morale — and even escalate into apathy or rebellion. On the flip side, employees who experience autonomy feel happier, more secure and engaged.

Bottomline, maximizing autonomy is fundamental to higher employee engagement. If you have good people and are able to develop a trusting relationship, then you can allow great freedom.

Thus, my COVID experience has prompted me to reexamine our organization’s policies with the goal of increasing autonomy. The reason is that I have become even more confident in the quality of our employees — and they have demonstrated that they can be trusted when given more flexibility. The challenge for managers like me is to do a better job of communicating expectations. This requires frequent check-ins so employees get the feedback and support they need to accomplish their goals.

I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I plan to keep raising these issues with our management team. Stay tuned.

(Published April 6, 2021)

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Dan Wyant
President of Edward Lowe Foundation
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“To me, leadership is about building a team, trying to get the best out of others, and helping them be successful,” says Dan Wyant, president and chief operating officer of the Edward Lowe Foundation.

“If done right, the impact should be lasting.” In this series of articles, Wyant shares insights about leadership gleaned from more than three decades of managing entrepreneurial and conservation organizations in the private, public and nonprofit sectors.