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Autonomy doesn’t work without situational awareness

Rory Sutherland wrote a good Spectator column this week on the underrated yet important virtue of autonomy in the workplace. Having autonomy at work is critical to feeling valued and motivated at an individual level but I'd also add that it is essential to moving fast and staying adaptive at a team level. Leaders that try to make all the decisions on behalf of the team slow everything down and demotivate their team. As Rory says:

"People who value autonomy are happy to be told what needs to be done, but they want some leeway to apply imagination, creativity and their own tacit knowledge in deciding how to do it."

Another way of expressing this is Spotify's idea of 'aligned autonomy' which is all about balancing the need for direction and inspiration with the need for the team to be empowered (more on that from a data and marketing perspective here). The role of a leader is to set a clear course and direction but then enable the team to make and act on the decisions that proximity to execution can inform better. Too many leaders, perhaps born of insecurity, want to micro-manage or unduly control. Confident and competent leaders are willing to set the guardrails and then let go. 

My adjunct to this is that autonomy in decision-making and action can only truly work when it is combined with good situational awareness. A leader can feel comfortable empowering a team when she knows that the team are well-informed, and contextually aware enough that they will make good decisions. Such is my fondness for 2 x 2 matrices that before now I've represented this idea like this:

Autonomy-awareness-1Autonomy is truly motivating when teams are equipped to make educated decisions. Being situationally aware means that individuals are cognizant enough of the relevant contexts and information to make informed choices, but also aware of how those choices impact the team. It is only when autonomy is combined with situational awareness that the full benefit of empowerment can be realised.   

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