Tarzan on the Need for Autonomy

tarzanWhenever I watch a Tarzan movie or read one of the many books, there is always a part of me that wonders why the antagonist doesn’t just leave Tarzan alone. They kidnap Jane, harass his familial gorillas, and generally taunt Tarzan until he has no choice but to avenge their wrongdoings. In the end, they flee the jungle in terror and Tarzan returns to his relatively autonomous existence.

Tarzan’s desire for autonomy is not unlike those of us and our employees. We have an innate need to experience the freedom to instigate our own actions. This includes feelings of self-initiation, self-inspiration, and self-regulation.

Contrary to what many believe, offering autonomy is not based upon job responsibilities or the employee’s stature within the hierarchy, but rather the ways in which the manager relates to employees and carries out supervisory functions. Managers who practice autonomy support sustain a culture of employee empowerment, high involvement, and creative engagement. They do this by acknowledging the employees’ perspective, removing obstacles associated with encumbering work rules, offering opportunities for choice, and encouraging self-initiation.

Extensive research has found that when managers embrace an autonomy-supportive climate, individuals on their team have more self-motivation, greater job satisfaction, and enhanced job performance. Additionally, one study found that these work-group members report a higher level of trust in the organization, and another study showed that when managers are perceived as autonomy-supportive, their staff have significantly less absenteeism and better overall physical and psychological well-being.

Before you open the floodgates, this is not an endorsement of a company culture where rogue loners are the standard. For all of Tarzan’s autonomy, he is fiercely loyal to his band of gorillas and Jane. That is why we need to rely on supercells.

Supercells are autonomous small teams within an organization. As Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, has said, teams should be no greater than the number of people who can be fed by two pizzas. Within the make up of these two-pizza teams are a cross-function of employees from different departments, with different skills, and from different levels of the organization.

What makes the supercell unique is that the team is self-managed. They have the autonomy to determine how they will achieve their goals. There is no designated group leader, just an end-goal and the freedom to get it done. Since the team is so small, there is a nimbleness that allows them to make faster decisions, pivot without warning, and remain in harmony.

To create a culture of autonomous supercells, consider the following:

Align. According to author Henrik Kniberg, forming an effective, autonomous supercell involves a high degree of alignment with the organization’s vision, mission, values, and priorities. To remain aligned, it falls on you, the leader, to communicate what problems need to be solved, changes within the company and industry, available resources, and why the end-goal matters. Since you will have multiple supercells, you must also ensure that they are sharing information.

Provide transparency. Alignment involves knowledge and autonomy relies on people having access to that knowledge. Share information about key metrics, why and how decisions have been made, and real-time changes. Provide updates as available and be transparent with your feedback. We must trust that they won’t abuse this privilege and they must trust that we are being forthcoming.

Hire smart. Your number one leadership priority should be hiring the right people to be on your team. A highly autonomous culture relies on people who are self-directed and able to work collaboratively. When interviewing, concentrate on interpersonal skills, alignment with the organization, and team-oriented focus.

Manage progress. In an autonomous workplace, your job is to help those on your team make progress. Day-to-day responsibilities include keeping the team focused and redirecting as needed. Provide strategic direction, remind them of the purpose, help to prioritize, and encourage progress.

Want to be king of the [workplace] jungle? Integrate autonomy into your culture. If you do, your team will become more dynamic, engaged, and adept. If you don’t, then you just became the villain in a Tarzan movie.