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Employee Autonomy

Do you allow your employees to be autonomous and do what they want?

Or do you control every aspect of your workplace, make every decision, and define all aspects of the employee’s role in every project?


It is currently popular for business leaders to say they want to empower their employees to be autonomous and free to innovate new and improved methods to perform their jobs.

But at the same time, they fear the chaos that might be unleashed if they actually do become autonomous and free to innovate new and improved methods to perform their jobs.

In this conundrum, questions arise, such as:

  • What if people go off in too many directions?
  • How will people make decisions?
  • What about resources?
  • Who gets what, and how do you mitigate all of the risks?

Fortunately, it’s possible to create some level of workplace alignment and control — while also giving your employees more freedom — by putting well-designed guardrails in place.


To create the right amount of employee autonomy requires four guardrails.

  • Cultivate a strategic mindset – everyone must have a sense of the overall business model, adopted strategic plans, and how their work could push the organization forward.
  • Have simple rules – these rules are structures that help leaders deal with blockages and behaviors that potentially can run amok.
  • Have a process for funneling – since not every idea that comes up in an organization is a good idea, a process must be created to identify ideas to be funnels for further consideration and approval
  • Distribute risk mitigation – quality control is everyone’s responsibility, and everyone needs to have the authority to call for a “timeout” if they see a problem or concern.

With that in mind, here are six ways to encourage autonomy with your employees:

  1. Mistakes will be made. Calm down. Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kill initiative and, consequently, employee engagement. If organizations aim to grow, it’s essential they be full of people engaged with initiative. This doesn’t happen when people work in fear.
  2. Hire autonomous people. Some people, although a minority, simply don’t choose to be autonomous. So when possible, hire employees who can naturally engage, provide them what they need to do their jobs well, and then get out of the way. Doing so encourages employees to take risks, try new ideas, and innovate.
  3. Build trust. Without trust, autonomy is impossible. However, when trust is present, it sends employees the message that they are in command of their time, effort,  and reward.
  4. Create choices within boundaries. The freedom of choice is a key element to autonomy, but too much choice can be detrimental. That’s why those who think autonomy means there are no boundaries are in error. In fact, firm boundaries — and a system to hold people accountable for results — are essential for autonomy to flourish. Within clear boundaries, people are empowered to determine how they will accomplish the tasks they are given.
  5. Grant employees ownership. Ownership occurs when what I am doing is mine, not just yours. Effective autonomy empowers the employee to tap into the reasons that underlie their work.
  6. Provide tools to reach goals.  Give your employees the tools and resources they need to reach your company’s goals, and theirs. Provide them training, technology, new faces… whatever it takes. This is about trust, saying, “I’m willing to invest in you and your ideas because I believe you’ll make it worthwhile.”

The Bible

It is fascinating to see how organizations are finally understanding how real freedom in the workplace flourishes only when guardrails are put in place.

As Christians, we understand that our freedom is Christ comes from conforming to God’s commands.  Those who do not understand Scripture often ask how can you be free if you have rules to follow.

Unconstrained freedom is not freedom; it is chaos.  Christian freedom is not freedom to do anything, but the freedom to do anything that is right.  Jesus bought our freedom with His life on the cross, and because of that, we are free to live without the guilt of sin as long as we follow what is right as defined by God.

Galatians 5:13-14 says.

 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.  For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Allow your employees to be autonomous, with guardrails in place.  And live with the freedom given by Christ, with His guardrails in place.