The one thing you can stop doing that will have immediate results

As soon as I sent the text message in response, I knew I had made a mistake. It was a relatively simple question, but I had fired off my answer a few seconds after receiving the query.

The moment I hit send I wished I could take it back. I didn’t misspeak or fall victim to autocorrect. I didn’t put my foot in my mouth or offer poor advice. My employee asked a simple question and I immediately responded with how she should proceed.

My mistake was offering my own advice instead of asking for her thoughts. What could have been an opportunity for back-and-forth dialogue or even just affirmation of her own ideas was quickly shut down.

When you answer their question right away, as I did, you shut them out of the decision-making process. Frequently, when employees come to you with a question, they already have their own answers in mind. These questions are an opportunity to collaborate with your team, to validate their perspectives, and empower them to make their own decisions.

A failure to empower your team creates bottlenecks that impede progress because they feel the need to run everything by you first. It demoralizes the people who work for you and stifles creativity.

However, if you prioritize autonomy on your staff, you will start seeing an immediate turn around in morale and productivity.

The quickest way to empower your employees and increase their autonomy? Stop answering their questions.

Yes, some answers are straight forward and just need a clarifying answer from you. But the more you can fight your impulse to respond to every question with an immediate answer, the more you will create a thriving workplace. Here’s why.

Autonomy is the key to job satisfaction

When people have more autonomy at work, they are more productive and more satisfied with their job. The opposite of autonomy is micromanaging. When your team feels micromanaged, they start to feel more like an interchangeable worker on an assembly line than a valued contributor (although Toyota showed that even assembly line workers can be given autonomy).

Giving your team autonomy means you take their input and ideas seriously. It means you give them some freedom and flexibility to set their own goals, to pursue their own ideas, and learn from their mistakes.

Autonomy has a whole host of specific benefits. Higher autonomy leads to lower turnover and higher engagement. It can help alleviate negative emotions in high-stress environments.

If you care about creating a healthy workplace culture, increasing autonomy is a quick way to get there.

3 Tips to Increase Autonomy

At this point, maybe you’re sold on autonomy, but now you’re wondering how to achieve it. Here are some strategies that have worked for me.

1. Answer a question with another question

Questions are often seen as interruptions to our own work, a nuisance that needs to be handled as quickly as possible. Someone asks you a question and the temptation is to answer it, send that person on her way, and get back to what you were doing.

Next time someone from your team poses you a question, try following the lead of some of the greatest teachers in history: use the Socratic Questioning Technique and answer the question with a question of your own (Jesus was pretty fond of answering questions with another question, too!). Using questions like this engages your employee in a process that helps him clarify his own understanding of the issue. It helps him unearth the answer he already had in mind and take ownership of the solution. An employee who sets the course himself will be much more invested in the outcome.

Here are some questions you can respond with when an employee asks for your input:

  • What do you think?
  • Why is that a problem?
  • What have you already tried?
  • What if you try x? (If you do have a solution in mind, this is a way to offer your direct input while still framing it as a question. It gives the employee more ownership than coming right out and telling them your thoughts.)

2. Set the destination, not the route

Whether you lead a small church with minimal staff or a multi-site megachurch, as the leader, your job is to set the course. You keep your team motivated when you remind them of their purpose and ultimate goal.

Beyond this, though, you can increase their autonomy by letting them decide the best route to achieve that goal.

If your church has an overall goal this season, let your team set individual goals that they think will accomplish the bigger picture. You might (and probably should) have a good idea where the church is going, but let your team come up with some creative ways to get there.

3. Respond to mistakes with grace

Losing your temper or dealing out hefty punishments for mistakes is one of the quickest ways to shut down autonomy. You would think churches would be grace-rich environments, but sometimes we need a reminder.

Mistakes are going to be made. Your team will learn something from their mistakes no matter what you do. Your response might teach them that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs, in which case they’ll always come to you first and only do what you tell them to do. On the other hand, if you help them learn from their mistakes and respond with grace, they’ll learn that it’s OK to try something that doesn’t work.

When people work in fear, they don’t experience autonomy. If you want to increase autonomy, work on eliminating fear and building trust. Fear and autonomy are often opposed to one another.

Asking yourself throughout the day, “Am I creating a culture of fear or autonomy?” will keep you on track to building a thriving workplace environment.

Most of us have experienced both sides of this coin, micromanagement and total autonomy. As an employee, it’s stifling to be micromanaged. And it’s not very fun for leaders to do the micromanaging, either. When you create autonomy, everyone wins.

Beyond Seminary