If you’re seeking to achieve business growth and expansion, it’s likely you’ll look to leverage the passion and talent of your employees. This might mean looking to your star performers, and it might mean looking for new hires.

The ultimate goal is to create autonomy within your workforce – you’re seeking to create a capability that works as if you were controlling it but with little need for your input. Think about that for a moment.

When autonomy is reached, things will just flow and you are free to turn your attention to higher level strategic matters which promote growth and expansion.

What is an autonomous workforce?

Leadership development experts Ken Blanchard and Scott Blanchard used research from the University of Rochester to conclude that employees who are autonomous, feel more related to their companies and products. As a direct result, they achieve competence and tend to stay with their companies.

“In today’s organizational setting, people want the ability to freely pursue and excel at the job they have been hired to do. The most important things employees are looking for now are the resources, tools, and means to work independently and to show their managers how competent they are.”

The thing is, these feelings can only be nurtured, not demanded, and every employee will tune his or her priorities to their own needs. You have to make tools available
for personal development without controlling the outcome.

Many businesses are failing to understand this fundamental shift in the psychology of their workers. According to the results of the 2015 American Working Conditions Survey, over 55% of U.S. workers say they work in "unpleasant and potentially hazardous" conditions.

About 75% say at least a quarter of their time at work is spent carrying out "intense or repetitive" physical labor, and around 20% say they face work under hostile conditions, which include sexual harassment reported by many young women and reports of bullying by younger men.

It’s not a pretty picture but there is a strong suite of tools available to start the journey towards an autonomous workforce. If harnessed effectively, these tools can be a genuine business asset.

Reaching autonomy calls for change

Now, arriving at autonomy doesn’t happen overnight. It’s an iterative process, and the way you handle it will determine how quickly you’re able to achieve it.

It will call for a change to your business – and change of this nature is difficult for people; that is, everyone who directly and indirectly has a role in your business. It upsets their equilibrium and gives rise to their fears.

Their status quo will change and they’ll need to understand how it will affect them and why you are making this change. Conveying the right message to everyone is therefore critical. Your message will set the framework that everyone can use to adjust to the new reality.

Be a guide

If you’re clear about your aspirations to achieve autonomy, your people will reach it quicker. Your personal role is to teach, guide and encourage, to provide them with the wisdom of your experience.

Don’t do it for them – empower them to achieve it themselves. As time moves forward, if you’re doing things right, you’ll be able to withdraw gradually until you, and they, realise autonomy has been reached.

Sounds like smooth sailing, doesn’t it? In most cases it won’t be, as change generates friction from many sources.

Be prepared to fight friction

It’s very common for people, or groups, who fear they are losing some type of control, or perceived status, to sabotage the improvement you seek to make.

It may be a peer that assumed they would be the chosen one, or a zealous HR person who is stuck in the past and cannot adjust to the way your business and its environment is evolving.

Wherever the friction emanates from, you can answer it by re-affirming your message to the people causing it and, most importantly, to the people you are empowering. Perseverance and commitment to strive for the autonomy you seek will lead to success.

Set some boundaries

While giving employees freedom is vital to the development of an empowered and autonomous workforce, setting boundaries is also an essential part of the process. A highly empowered workforces can knock down the biggest of barriers and achieve amazing outcomes, but directing that energy in the right way is also essential.

If you empower people by setting them loose without any direction, they can lose momentum and focus - or, even worse, they can make costly mistakes or put a project at risk.

Blanchard believes the key to setting boundaries is to ensure people know the areas where they can be autonomous and responsible rather than focusing on things they are not permitted to do.

“Boundaries are based on each person’s skill level and are meant to help the person understand how their goals align with the overall vision and goals of the organization. Helping people see how their work fits into the big picture allows them to become peak performers.”

It is also important for managers to explain the decision making process in an empowered culture. Some people think being empowered means they get to make all the decisions. They could be disappointed when the manager continues to make strategic decisions and leaves only some operational decisions to them. And they might hesitate to make decisions at all when they realise they will be held accountable for the results—both good and bad.

Turn your structure upside down

Building an autonomous workforce may require a comprehensive rethink on the way your structure your business. If you are like many business you think about your business as a pyramid with a president at the top, senior managers under them and middle managers under them and workers at the bottom.

An empowered workforce allows you to throw this thinking out the window and literally turn your organisational structure upside down. Why do you need a hierarchy when employees know and understand their role and are determined to achieve individual success that is aligned with overall business success?

Instead it might be time to start thinking about your business as an inverted pyramid with your customers at the top, being supported by your workforce and your senior managers at the bottom providing support and guidance.

Ultimately as a manager your goal is to sit back and try to see the big picture and steer your way to success. With an empowered and autonomous workforce under the hood driving the motor, you will be more free to tackle your own challenges.