The Benefits of Autonomy in the Workplace

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Exponential Organizations" by Salim Ismail, Michael S. Malone, and Yuri van Geest. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the benefits of autonomy in the workplace? Why is autonomy important for employees at work?

In his book Exponential Organizations, Salim Ismail tells readers how to create small-but-flexible companies using as few of their own resources as possible. Ismail also explains business strategies for managing small teams, including the benefits of autonomy and trust in the workplace.

Read on to learn the benefits of autonomy in the workplace and why it’s important, according to Ismail.

Why Employees Need Autonomy at Work

In Exponential Organizations, Salim Ismail explains how to leverage new innovations in technology and business practice to build hugely successful companies. Ismail is a renowned entrepreneur and business strategist. He’s also the founding executive director of Singularity University, a company that offers executive training and business consulting services. In this article, we’ll explain Ismail’s perspective on the benefits of autonomy in the workplace, according to Exponential Organizations.

Ismail believes that having a small team helps you to build an atmosphere of trust in the workplace. Ismail says that you need to be able to rely on every employee to show creativity, problem-solving skills, and autonomy. When your team is small, it’s much easier to build that sense of trust and confidence with each individual team member. In contrast, the CEO of a corporation with thousands of employees wouldn’t be able to create such strong connections because there are simply too many people to do so.

How to Create Trust

How can you create trust, as Ismail recommends here? In The Leadership Challenge, leadership expert Barry Posner offers three tips for creating an atmosphere of trust within your company:

1. Be the first to show trust. Your team will follow your lead, so trust your workers to do the tasks you assign them. Also, be open and honest about your goals and your motivations so your employees feel like they understand you and can trust you in return. 

2. Demonstrate empathy. Treat your team members with respect, and let them know that they can always approach you with any problems they’re having. Fostering this kind of personal connection will create deeper feelings of trust. 

3. Share your knowledge. Demonstrate your knowledge and skills so that your employees know you’re qualified to lead them. This also gives you an opportunity to help your team members solve their work-related problems, if needed. 

Ismail puts extra emphasis on the benefits of autonomy in the workplace: You must trust your employees to tackle problems on their own and to ask for help when needed. Micromanagement will frustrate your employees and harm your company’s ability to be flexible. Many large corporations fall into this trap, relying on strict rules and monitoring because they can’t build strong relationships with all of their employees. 

Autonomous Employees Need Feedback

As Ismail notes, micromanagement is counterproductive, but to enjoy the benefits of autonomy in the workplace, you must focus on clear communication and mutual constructive feedback—autonomy doesn’t mean isolation. 

In No Rules Rules, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings explains how he maximizes his workers’ effectiveness and job satisfaction by not just encouraging but requiring open and honest feedback at every level of the company. In other words, if a newly hired employee wanted to give constructive criticism to Hastings himself, the new hire would be expected to do so. 

Because of this constant stream of feedback from all directions, Hastings can give his employees the benefits of autonomy that Ismail talks about here—if an employee’s decision causes a problem in the workplace, that employee will quickly hear about it and correct it. 

Benefits of Creating Small Teams

Aside from more opportunities to build trust and autonomy, Ismail says there are other benefits to having a small, decentralized staff in the workplace. For example, small teams allow for greater flexibility and greater risk-taking. In other words, it’s easier for a small team to make and implement a potentially risky plan because there are fewer people to win over and fewer possible conflicts of interest or personality. 

Flexibility and risk-taking are crucial for any modern company because the world has become too complex to predict, and technology advances so quickly that you can’t predict how it will disrupt your industry. Therefore, Ismail says it’s much better to have (possibly risky) products or services with quick turnaround times from conception to sales, and a company that can adapt to changes as they happen, rather than relying on inevitably flawed “safe” models and predictions. In fact, he says that the single riskiest thing a company can do is not take risks—a company that plays it safe is sure to be forced out by a bolder competitor.

(Shortform note: Risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb says that taking risks—putting your Skin In the Game—has numerous benefits besides the chance for reduced costs or increased revenue. First, putting something of your own (like your company, your money, or your job) on the line will keep you focused and inspire you to work harder. However, perhaps even more importantly, Taleb says that taking chances and observing the results is the only way to learn about an increasingly complicated world; direct experience will teach you things that no formal education or predictive model could prepare you for.) 

The Benefits of Autonomy in the Workplace

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  • How to leverage new technology and business practices to build a successful company
  • How to minimize your personal risks when starting a company
  • The importance of connection and community to boost success

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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