Being autonomous means that you’re making decisions for yourself. Everyone should have some amount of autonomy in their work, free from micromanagement, so I’d like us to think of the definition one step further. The definition that I gravitate toward is, the capacity to act in accordance with objective morality rather than being influenced. If your organization is trusting you to make decisions and believes you have the capacity to act in accordance with this high level of authority, they are giving you true autonomy in your work.
How does it show they value me, or don’t?
A person who is trusted to act autonomously in their work is truly valued by the organization. The company trusts that the person shares the values and understands the vision. This as well as being able to further the organizational strategy with decisions that they make. Because of this trust the company is able to empower the individual to further the message and be alert for if things would go off point.
For example your organization asks you to take part in an employee wellness committee that will organize activities and cultural goals around wellness as well as incentives for those who participate. They are excited to have you as a part of the committee and ask for monthly updates on the group’s progress. That was two sentences right. In those two sentences you were asked to participate, given the direction of how it should work, and encouraged in the endeavor. They are expecting you to take the topic of wellness (or any other initiative that they may ask you to partake in) and mirror it against the organizational values, mission, and strategy and they are confident you’ll get it right. The organization is showing just how much they trust and value you in this moment. They value your ability to connect those things, willingness to take on this, no doubt extra, work, and trust that you’ll bring up any concerns or disconnections in the monthly check-ins.
Let’s use another example, you’re asked to take over an assignment that your boss would typically handle. Maybe that assignment is paperwork, maybe it is attending a meeting, maybe it is overseeing other fellow employees or some of their tasks. This is a similar expectation of what you’re able to accomplish autonomously. Your boss trusts you to understand and account for the team goals, make decisions similarly to how they would make them, and understand at what threshold or level of concern you should bring them back in. Last week we discussed this as a potential down fall to development. Your boss potentially uses you as a dumping ground for the work they don’t want to do under the guise of developing you. Take the time to dissect and reflect on the situation to understand the true intention and result of the request. There are many times where development turns into working autonomously on the less glamourous side of the next step of your career. This is to determine if you’re ready and willing to put in the grunt work that next step will require.
Finally remember that we’re nearly to the peek of our hierarchy. The only space above autonomy is influence. While you may have the ability to influence well before your organization is valuing you to the point of putting you in positions to influence others; think of this as the final step before you influence. This is the step where you’re able to make decisions independently without the influence of others. To take it one step further, you’re in a place where you can decide whether or not you allow yourself to be influenced by others. You will be put into situations where others will attempt to influence you, but you will prevail in making objective moral decisions.
I do want to dissect and clarify that a little bit. I am not trying to say that the amount your organization values you dictates your ability to make sound decisions or think objectively or identify and be conscious of influencers. This isn’t as much about you and your abilities or skills as it is about the level of trust in you, and therefore the autonomy given to you, and the amount the organization empowers you to utilize those skills. Think of it this way, let’s go back to high school and pretend you had a great sense of humor and were a pretty sweet dancer. You are cultivating these abilities at home with your family and turning into skills. By the time you’re 14 you’re not too shabby but you’re a Freshman so no one is inviting you to the party. Two years later you are maybe even a little funnier and have mastered whatever was the must do dance of your high school career. You’re invited to the party, but quickly learn this is a Senior’s world and drawing the crowd to you won’t really be tolerated. You are smart enough to know you have something great to offer and a few other’s are catching on too. You get to choose if you gravitate to (and are associated with) the bully, jock, class clown, etc based on where you want to be and what’s important to you. If the one you chose starts doing something you don’t agree with, you can change course and either find a new group or leave all together. Your abilities didn’t change in the two years though they have maybe improved with practice. What changed was the organization (in this case the social structure of high school) allowing you the opportunity to utilize them. They placed more value on you and what you bring to the table to in a sense invite you to it. Now you have the added ability to decide who else, and what other goals and roles you want to associate or align yourself with.
If this is the level I’m in, what now?
Let’s actually start with, how did I get here? This sort of autonomy grows over time and while I’m not talking about completing your work without being micromanaged, it does often start there. First, you typically need to show you’re making the decisions that align with the organizational goals and values already. This can be done accidentally over time by simply making the right decision when given the opportunity and eventually someone will notice. This is probably how I’ve seen this done most commonly, but it is slow. If you’re aware of your intent and you were trying to make progress in this area, likely you drew the line from the decisions you made, the actions you took, etc to how they supported the organizational strategy and values. For example if you spent a little extra time and care with a customer, when you get the opportunity casually bring up the interaction with your boss and explain you were working toward making the customer a top priority. Subtly linking your daily actions with the company objectives with advance the ball much quicker here. Whether you did it intentionally or accidentally your team, leaders, and others began noticing your commitment to driving the mission forward and that transitioned into specific asks for your involvement in more of the same.
So congratulations on getting here! I will honestly say that not everyone does and not everyone even cares to. It takes time, commitment, and work on your part to build this level of value with the organization. This is a great place to be and will open doors within the organization as you continue to show your ability to think strategically about the business you’re in and how to further the big picture. It also increases your value independent of the organization as well. You are being given opportunities to understand and advance strategic goals with feedback on how to improve that ability. This is an incredibly valuable skill and will help you in multiple areas of life.
Things I’m reminding myself of
This stage is stand alone and often quiet and reflective. It does not require you to site your opinion or wager advice on any and all things. The organization and leadership within it very often will not have you jump right from developing to influencing others. They need the margin of autonomy to see how the development is playing out. This is something I have needed reminding of in the past and likely will again in the future. Many of us have a tendency to learn something and decide we are now the expert so we should obviously share it with everyone and tell them exactly how they should act, think, and be. Obviously. If you get to a point of true autonomy enjoy the expectation for what it is a chance to be introspective, objective, and hold a high level of moral standards.