Really, Autonomy is NOT Overrated

To use a tired cliché, they call it Show Business for a reason. Fortunately, within the last 10 years or so, the news media in Los Angeles has been covering that industry as it would any other large one in the region. So, it made a local splash when the Chairman and CEO of CBS said at a conference when discussing the artistic freedom that streaming services and others give filmmakers, “Autonomy is overrated” and “I helped cast ‘Friends.’ I was an executive… We help the process at the studio, at the network.”

I think there are better ways to support your argument than a one-off example from 20+ years ago. Also, Mlodinow’s book The Drunkard’s Walk cites some pretty good examples how much randomness goes into the success of entertainment ventures, so for each positive example he provided for casting I’m sure there is another one where his control over the decision making process hurt the project. Or, maybe the show would have been just as successful with the original casting. But, I digress.

Autonomy is freedom from external control or influence. It does not mean doing something without input or ideas from others. It is a state of independence in that you have the final say on decisions. Perhaps from an executive’s point of view that’s dangerous or nerve wracking, but for employees it is anything but overrated. The data show that perceived autonomy is related to many important organizational outcomes, including productivity and job satisfaction.

What he was really talking about was his company’s willingness to invest $X million of dollars into anything without having some veto rights in terms of content, casting, etc. In this case, it’s buying content and the struggle is over who really owns it. In a more typical scenario, it’s hiring people to execute a business plan and the struggle is over how much control the managers feel they needs to have over employees.

This week I’m working with a retail client in building competency models. They have recently moved to a business model where customer engagement is more important than it had been in the past. One example that middle managers gave of this was getting rid of a multi-tiered refund policy (this happens if you have a receipt, this happens if it’s after 30 days, etc.) and giving the store managers the decision making authority to say “Yes” to pretty much any reasonable refund request. I’m guessing that customers don’t think that this autonomy is overrated.

Autonomy is also a key part of the “gig” economy. While there are important legal issues as to whether these people are employees in certain situations, the larger issue is that there’s a strong need for them to feel that they are controlling their own destiny. A few months ago I got a ride from a woman who was living the gig economy dream. She had a “regular” part-time job where she had control of her hours. She drove for two ride sharing services and rented out a room in her house. When I asked her if that was a lot to keep track of, she responded that she was a good time manager (obviously) and that the freedom to work (or not work) any specific set of hours was important to her.

My observation is that millennials enjoy the autonomy that technology gives them. This leads to an expectation of it in the workplace. Employers should use this as an opportunity to create engagement.

Giving people (appropriate) decision making authority should not be scary if they are properly hired and trained. Executives who fear autonomy are missing out on engaged and high performing employees.

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