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From control to autonomy – should we adapt our leadership?

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On October 12, 2018

More and more frequently we are hearing about empowerment. If done authentically and in-depth, far from being an additional HR tool it is a real organizational earthquake allowing the company to be much more effective to respond to the complex reality of the 21st century. Leaving behind the paradigm of control will bring a lot of positive energy that will increase intrinsic motivation and therefore the organization effectiveness.


A few words of history.


As our ancestors began to discover agriculture and settled down, they were already feeling the need for new organizational solutions. The spirit of the nomadic tribe with oral rules and simple structures was no longer able to properly handle the new situation. With the settlement the tribe grew quickly and new roles appeared. The world quickly became much more complicated.


Humanity then invented a whole series of things. It started with the creation of villages and then cities giving birth to the notion of property, trade, war … Writing was invented, to have a record of assets and debts. Money was created to facilitate exchanges. All along many centuries, the civilizations invented many objects and concepts that still form the foundations of our world.


A certain Newton.


In the 17th century a certain Newton, emblematic character of the Enlightenment, defined the bases of physics by formalizing the world and indirectly creating the deterministic view we are used to. Classical mechanics, the principles of universal gravitation and other theories still have, despite major discoveries in quantum physics and many other sciences, a significant impact on our understanding of the world.


In our Western countries, we remain mostly convinced that we can control the world to networks that we use on a daily basis can no longer ensure a predictability of our actions’ outcomes. Finally, we find that our world is finite. Exit determinism, welcome to the chaos of a complex and limited world.


A different world.


But since the 70’s the world has evolved. The period during which the demand was greater than the offer is well finished. The nascent globalization has imposed itself and the world is only a village. The financial world has taken a prominent place. The Internet has enabled the establishment of an interactions’ network of an elusive complexity. And we have at our disposal a huge amount of resources creating almost infinite possibilities.


So over the last two decades, we have witnessed a paradigm shift similar to the settlement. Newton’s world has given way to a world full of uncertainty. A world in which a simple action no longer leads to a simple reaction. Similarly physical and virtual interactions’ networks that we use on a daily basis can no longer ensure a predictability of our actions’ outcomes. Finally, we find that our world is finite. Exit determinism, welcome to the chaos of a complex and limited world.


Can we still approach our world as before?


Despite this [r]evolution, our organizational structures are still often similar to those of the past century. We see that information circulates much faster, that the financial pressure is very important and that change is constant without the underlying organization has significantly evolved. This lead to the negative consequences that the systems put in place for another period will unfortunately not only deplete natural resources but also human ones.


Climate change, depleted resources, loss of meaning, burnout, absenteeism, and low commitment, as shown by the Gallup’s famous surveys, are all symptoms of organizations inadequacy to the reality of our world. The pyramid control structure can no longer be effective. It often induces hidden and huge costs that are mostly borne by the community. A community that can not cope with the many requests.


Autonomy as the start of an answer!


In response to this significant pressure on organizations, some of them have set in place approaches that aim to increase the autonomy of their employees. They realize that the control structures can no longer keep up with the pace and complexity of the economic and social environments. They also note that employees of control-oriented companies can not any more manage the important tensions between the expectations of the outside world and the limits set on their actions.


Autonomy is the most convincing answer to the end of a deterministic and infinite world. It allows the organization to act, to experiment, to learn, to miss, to be … in short to evolve to the rhythm and in phase with the reality of our century. Autonomy becomes the source of the best answers, constantly questioned and adapted, to the search for a balance between opportunities, resources, and resiliency. It replaces the usual planning processes that are considered both burdening and inefficient.


How to advance autonomy?


Promoting autonomy means accepting that one can not impose effectively management choices. In the pyramidal organizational structure that we know well, it’s always technically possible but it’s not anymore the best way to go. So some organizations have started to push another approach based on autonomy.


To promote autonomy management will first learn to let go. It will accept mistakes, slow or fussy actions and often discomfort with the “slight” chaos created. This will allow in a psychologically safe environment the emergence of real nuggets that will boost the organization. Employees will have, with the support of the hierarchy, to learn to take responsibility and look themselves for solutions. They can no longer hide behind their managers. And the manager will no longer be able to hide behind the alleged incompetence of his collaborators. All will have to learn to communicate. It will be necessary to learn to discipline itself and to voluntary follow a collaborative framework that should be equally applied to all. It will also be necessary to learn to be responsible and to trust. All that learning will take time but will reinforce itself as the maturity of the organization grows.


A flexible framework that motivates.


To support autonomy, there is at the organizational level a huge need to have a meaningful business project. The organizations must define a clear collaborative framework that federates and provide sense. This framework is specific to each organization but can include such things as a mission, a vision, values or a collaborative contract that explains how to collaborate. It can also implement a social responsibility program fully integrated into the activities. It will also deploy techniques of collective intelligence, meeting management, stress management …


There are many tools to promote and set in place the employees’ autonomy. But there is no point in wanting to go too fast. It’s better to start small and learn from mistakes made. The transformation process must also adapt to everyone’s speed and accept that not everyone is interested in a bigger autonomy.


The benefits of autonomy.


The leader who has learned to let go and supports the autonomy of his collaborators can expect to reap many benefits. His collaborators will be more fulfilled and motivated. They will invest more easily in the business project. With autonomy and responsibility taken by the employees, listening capacities to both internal and external customers needs will also be improved. The initiative taking skill needed for continuous improvement and innovation will then naturally emerge in the most pro-active collaborators.


If empowerment is done at the corporate level and is well supported by the leadership, it can increase the overall company’s agility and level of collaboration. Then the internal structure will change according to the growth of the maturity’s level. This organization will certainly be more attentive to the outside world facilitating its management and evolution.


A demanding path.


Empowering your employees is a demanding path. It is not enough to write a few rules and then making sure of their correct execution. Gardener of the organization, the leadership will have to make sure that the approach is well understood and integrated by all. It will have to support each of the collaborators to ensure that they can grow. It will work on setting up collaborative solutions and more importantly it will be the guardian of the culture. These new leadership tasks will take an important part of their time, a time freed by the empowerment of the collaborators. As a bonus, these activities will be, for the majority of leadership, much more fulfilling than those of the control based management.


Allowing autonomy is a path that transforms managers and employees. What else is more rewarding than receiving a sincere thank you for offering to all many opportunities to develop and realize themselves. For those who have tried this approach a return to control is no longer possible.


So ready for the change?

Last modified: October 12, 2018

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From control to autonomy – should we adapt our leadership?

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