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Why more autonomy leads to a more adaptive team

This is the fourth installment in our ongoing series about highly adaptive teams. The more adaptive companies are, the more financial gains that company generates. They also consistently outperform their industry peers and sustain superior performance over time.

There are five traits in particular that are instrumental toward forming and nurturing a highly adaptive team. Those traits are:

  • one voice
  • sense-and-respond capacity
  • information processing
  • freedom within a framework
  • and boundary fluidity

Today, we’ll be discussing the fourth item on that list: freedom within a framework.

Roselinde Torres (“The Five Traits of Highly Adaptive Leadership Teams”) describes freedom within a framework as so: “In addition to setting a common direction, adaptive leadership teams establish a framework within which the organisation can experiment. Team leaders are empowered to take bold risks within agreed-to parameters, with failure seen as a possible and an acceptable outcome. Failure is only debilitating if the lessons learned are not disseminated and applied quickly. In this environment, employees earn greater autonomy to make decisions and investments as a reward for meeting objectives.”

“We set aggressive targets and give ‘blank checks’ to teams to move forward with their own plan, and the teams have responded positively and met all of their objectives,” concluded an executive of a food company.

“My role is about destination- and standard setting, not about dictating how everything happens,” said the division leader of a financial services company.

This sense of autonomy can very well reap benefits on a wide range of levels. Roselinde Torres goes on to say this in her article: “Recent neuroscientific research shows that learning new things activates the most energy-intensive part of the brain. Adaptive leaders understand this intuitively and are therefore dedicated to identifying and employing the most effective approaches to driving organizational learning and change. They enable people to solve problems on their own as well, and reward accomplishment with autonomy, giving individuals a way to engage in additional independent problem-solving in the future.”

Not only will you build problem-solving skills among your team members, but research has shown that giving employees more autonomy also leads to greater job satisfaction, higher engagement, better resilience, and more motivation as well.

So how can a company offer more freedom to its team members?

Follow these tips from Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, a social psychologist, speaker, and author:

Tip 1: First, and most obviously, your employees need to understand why the goal they’ve been assigned has value.  Too often, managers tell their employees what they need to do, without taking the time to explain why it’s important, or how it fits into the bigger picture.  No one ever really commits to a goal if they don’t see why it’s desirable for them to do it in the first place.  Don’t assume the why is as obvious to your team as it is to you.

Tip 2: When the goal itself is predetermined by Management, allowing your employees to decide how they will reach the goal can create the feeling of choice necessary to be intrinsically motivated.  Allowing them to tailor their approach to their preferences and abilities will also give them heightened sense of control over the situation they find themselves in, which can only benefit performance.  (If you can’t give them total free reign, try giving them a choice between two options for how to proceed.  If even that is not possible, skip directly to Tip 3.)

Tip 3: If you have to assign both the goal and the method for reaching it, try creating the feeling of choice by inviting your employee to make decisions about more peripheral aspects of the task.  For instance, if your employees have to attend weekly team meetings to improve communication and collaboration (with both the goals and method for reaching it predetermined), you can have team members take turns deciding what the topic of the meeting will be each week, or even what kind of lunch will be ordered in.  Studies show that these more peripheral decisions create a feeling of choice, even when the choices aren’t particularly meaningful or relevant to the goal itself.


What are some ways that your company gives its team members more autonomy? Share in the comments below!

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