Be ‘Autonomy-Supportive’

I don’t agree with leaders who think that people should just do their bloody jobs that they’re paid to do and stop whinging but I don’t want you to think for a moment that I’m suggesting leaders should step back from being firm and decisive and let anyone do anything anytime they feel like it. ‘Autonomy supportive’ is not a euphemism for gutless permissiveness. Everyone still needs to achieve results, do their job and work together. Leaders need to be there removing obstacles and providing resources, direction and feedback. But how can you best do that and still provide people as much as practicable with their natural need for autonomy? And, again, is it worth it?

Yes it is worth it. Deci’s study of Xerox employees showed that employees with an “autonomy supportive” manager were more trusting of the company, less concerned about pay and had higher job satisfaction and morale.

Workers who are anxious, for whatever reason, are more focused and on-task but are highly risk-averse. That might be a good thing depending on their role. However, they rely more on habit and routine and are less creative. That might be a bad thing depending on their role. Non-anxious workers are more explorative, see the bigger picture not just the narrow focus on the particular task at the time, take acceptable risks and are more creative.

You may not use the term autonomy supportive about yourself but maybe you are already. How can you tell? One clue that a manager may be autonomy supportive is when you ask them about an employee and they reply from the employee’s point of view. How do you answer when asked about your people?

What do autonomy supportive leaders do? They avoid controlling language. They align themselves with the person being limited’s point of view not necessarily aligning themselves with that person but from their perspective. They recognise any proactivity coming from the other person to encourage more of it. Instead of instantly criticising or critiquing poor performance, they ask what the performer’s thoughts are about the incident.

 How To Effectively Provide Support – “Scaffolding”

Psychologist Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky compared a supportive workplace environment to the scaffolding he would see used on building sites. It gets put up to provide access and support as building occurs. Only what is needed gets provided and when it is no longer needed, it is removed.

Leigh Branham’s antidote for employers to his seven hidden reasons employees leave revolves around meeting the expectations of applicants, communicating differently to different people, taking better care of new hires, giving supervisors the freedom and training to manage people their own way and embracing the belief that good employees can leave for the right reasons with new skills and good will and that’s a good thing.

Branham promotes an ‘Employer of choice scorecard’ measuring and publicising:

·     voluntary staff turnover

·     referral rates

·     ratio of internal hires

·     new hire retention

·     engagement

·     absenteeism

It’s a fine line between allowing the privilege of autonomy and abdicating responsibility. Thirty years ago, I worked my way through university at a building supply warehouse. This was in the mid 1980s and workplace safety hadn’t been invented yet as far as I could tell. Starting out sweeping up, I ended up doing all the selling and delivering that the permanent guys did. Apart from my lack of body fat and cigarettes, I blended right in. For the most part, I thought I had the skills sorted too. What I didn’t have, technically, was the paperwork such as a legal driving licence for some of the equipment used around the store like overhead cranes, heavy trucks and forklifts. As I said, it was the mid 1980s so society had to put up with Wham, Miami Vice and me driving trucks without a licence.

One day in my third year I must have earned quite a few trust points with the managers as an important training session was being run for the fulltime staff and I was left in sole charge of the store during a slow part of the day. This was a multi-laned drive-through hardware warehouse with wallboards and all the big stuff, not just a shop with the bits and pieces. Out the back all the lanes ended up in the yard where we kept the steel and so forth. Deliveries would arrive in the yard and we’d unload the trucks then double-handle the goods into the store. Inefficient I know but that’s the way things were done around there.

It was quiet during the training session until a truck arrived with a delivery of particle board flooring. These were big packs. Each sheet was 3.6 metres by 1.8 metres and weighed 100 kilograms  by itself. There were 10 sheets in a pack. I had unloaded these before using our in-house forklift. The drivers are always in a hurry and time is money so we’d take them off two packs at a time. Once you lifted them up fractionally off the truck, you needed to tilt the forks back just a bit so you could reverse away from the truck and lower them from the two to three metres they were off the ground. I’d done it before and while there was little margin for error, I didn’t hesitate in expressing my autonomy and deciding to unload the truck.

Unbeknownst to me, with Christmas approaching, the factory had embarked on a Christmas sales promotion, adding two extra bonus sheets to each pack at no extra cost. That’s a real bargain – a 400 kilogram bargain. I went through my tested procedure for unloading and it went fine. The forklift was quite powerful, albeit a little short in the fork department. Things went fine with the lifting. It was the little tilt back that sent things awry.

The extra 400 kilograms made a difference. Instead of remaining on the forks as it had always done before, the tilt back caused a wobble and the laws of physics being what they were in the mid 1980s, the 2.4 tonne, 1.8 metre wide load of flooring tilted the other way – over the front end of my 1.2 metre forks! The entire load kept on in that direction, disappearing over the far edge of the truck I was unloading. It fell edge down onto the ashphalt on the other side of the truck. There was another truck parked on the other side and, miraculously, because it was falling edge-ways it missed both trucks almost entirely. It barely clipped a wing mirror on the way down. (I noticed this because time had slowed down for me.)

Particle board is good for cheap flooring for cheap houses. It ain’t pretty to look at but its solid enough. It’s called particle board because it’s basically just sawdust and chips of leftover wood super-glued together. Laid flat it can take a lot of weight and force. It has to; it’s a floor. What it’s not designed to do is drop sideways from three metres above the ground with twenty three other sheets onto solid ground. The moment it struck, it disintegrated. Those scenes in movies where the building collapses and the hero crawls out covered in debris with that wide-eyed panda look – that was me. I had been wearing safety goggles because, you know, I cared about safety.

In my untrustworthy memory I am sure the dust erupted into a spectacular mushroom cloud and the whole thing was surprisingly quiet. The training course inside proceeded uninterrupted. At this point, I exercised my autonomy to make sure the driver was still alive and suggested to him that I wouldn’t be signing the delivery receipt anytime soon. He laughed and I’m pretty sure he put in a good word for me with the bosses. I kept my job which funded my first degree, and that ultimately led to me being qualified and experienced enough to write this book.

And I learned a very valuable lesson about the power and limits of worker autonomy.

This was an excerpt from my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’. Learn more at

About Terry Williams - The Brain-Based Boss

I'm all about engaging people and helping you engage yours to influence behaviour to improve results - at work and at home. Maybe you're a manager, a salesperson, a leader, a parent, a presenter or an event organiser? You need to grab your people's attention, create some rapport, be memorable and influence behaviour change. How can we do that? I'm originally a trainer by trade, turned manager, turned comedian and partway back again. Author of 'THE GUIDE: How to kiss, get a job & other stuff you need to know', I write and speak about how to engage people, be they employees, family or yourself. How can we connect with people’s own internal motivations and help them use their own inner passions to drive towards productivity, success and happiness? And hopefully have a few laughs along the way... As a trainer facilitating learning and development in others, I find myself drawing on my own extensive business experience. I specialise in the delivery of high impact, customised training solutions for organisations that are serious about improving the performance and lives of their people.

Posted on February 15, 2021, in Employee Engagement. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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