The Right Level of Autonomy at Work: Where’s the Sweet Spot?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Unreasonable Hospitality" by Will Guidara. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What level of autonomy at work should you give to your employers? How do you find the balance of control as a manager?

Will Guidara’s book Unreasonable Hospitality shares excellent lessons that anyone can apply to their career. One lesson is to find a good balance of control at work, letting your employees take initiative while also stepping in when needed.

Here’s how to find that balance, according to Guidara.

Find the Balance of Control

After graduating from Cornell, Guidara began working as a manager at a restaurant owned by Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG).  Guidara quickly fell in love with the restaurant group’s “restaurant-smart” culture, which prioritized teamwork and cultivating trust in both the kitchen and the floor staff to do their jobs well. This is also where he learned the perfect level of autonomy at work that managers should give to employees.

(Shortform note: In Setting the Table, Danny Meyer provides further context on why USHG had a restaurant-smart culture. For many years, Meyer believed that running his restaurants as a group and creating corporate structure would ruin the individuality and soul of each restaurant. As a result, he resisted turning USHG into an official restaurant group—and as a consequence lacked several essential departments, such as marketing and public relations—until 2003, shortly before he opened his restaurants at the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art).)

However, Guidara’s father warned him that he needed to work somewhere with a “corporate-smart” culture—a more business-like attitude to running restaurants that favored more controlled, corporate systems over on-the-ground staff autonomy. So Guidara joined RA, his father’s old company, first as their assistant purchaser and controller and then as assistant general manager and controller of Nick + Stef’s Steakhouse in Madison Square Garden.

(Shortform note: Restaurants have two broad departments: the front of house and the back of house. The front of house is made up of guest-facing roles such as the general manager, the servers, and hosts, while the back of house is the team that keeps the restaurant running behind the scenes: the chefs, purchasers—who buy what the restaurant needs from third parties—and finance people, including the controller who oversees accounting and payroll. Guidara thus had a well-rounded experience at RA, which gave him a more holistic view of the restaurant business.)

Switching Jobs May Come With Culture Shock

Thinking of moving to another company? Keep culture in mind. Not everyone has an easy time switching between companies that have vastly different cultures. Many companies hire for “culture fit”—and while this is ostensibly a method of evaluating whether a potential employee shares your company values, it often translates to hiring the person who looks and acts like everyone else at your company. 

So if you come from a company with a different cultural style and your background is different from that of your potential new coworkers’, you may struggle to break into a company. Guidara may have had an easier time switching to corporate-style culture due to his family connection; after all, 22% of American men with non-absentee fathers join the same company as their father.)  

Guidara’s time working at RA taught him that it’s essential to have some but not too much control over your employees. Sometimes, control can help your employees. For example, when RA noticed that the increased price of lobster was negatively affecting a restaurant’s profits, the controller banned their chefs from using the ingredient. The controller’s focus on the restaurant’s bottom line freed the chef to focus on serving great food without having to worry about serving a financially viable lobster dish.

(Shortform note: It may be tricky to determine how much control is too much. Some research suggests that the degree of control may vary depending on the task and circumstances: Controls seem to work best in jobs that require performing routine tasks, while more autonomy may work better for jobs that require creativity—in the case of RA, the controller only had control over the bottom line, but didn’t dictate what the chef could serve, enabling the chef to exercise culinary creativity.) 

That said, too much control can harm your employees. While working at Nick + Stef’s, Guidara fired a server who regularly disrupted the dinner service due to his unprofessional behavior. While USHG would have trusted Guidara’s decision, RA’s head office rehired the server, explaining to Guidara that this server made the company a lot of money because his customers loved him. Guidara was furious; he believed that the server’s profit potential didn’t outweigh the damage that he did to the rest of the dining team—damage that the head office couldn’t see because they weren’t in the dining room every evening. 

(Shortform note: Guidara’s assertion that company leaders should defer certain decisions to employees who are in the restaurant every day reflects a common military tactic. In Superforecasting, Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner describe the military principle of “mission command,” in which commanders determine the overall strategy of their forces but defer decisions on how to execute that strategy to on-the-ground troops. This allows troops to make flexible decisions based on the dynamic situations they encounter firsthand—as Guidara did when he fired the disruptive employee.)

The Right Level of Autonomy at Work: Where’s the Sweet Spot?

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  • How Will Guidara turned Eleven Madison Park into the World's Best Restaurant
  • Why service-based businesses should go above and beyond for customers
  • Guidara's lessons he learned from each stage of his business journey

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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