How to Inspire Your Staff to Be Flexible and Autonomous

Infusing your business goals into your workforce will help them be nimble when things pop up.
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Getting employees involved in the big picture can help them make creative moves that advance your small business's goals. (Photo: mavo/Shutterstock)

No matter the business, most employees get trained on a specific set of rules, policies and best practices. But rules can only go so far — and so many situations your staff will encounter fall outside of their training. Helping them develop the skills to be nimble throughout the workday is essential to business success.

Jessica Prater

“With proper communication, employees internalize these core values and use them to navigate gray areas by making sure their decisions are aligned with the overall company vision.” – Jessica Prater

How can you inspire your staff to be more autonomous? Here are some expert-approved strategies that can help empower them to make great decisions on the fly.

Hire the right people

Independence isn’t a universal trait — there are some people who thrive only in prescriptive environments. Hire the right people by gauging applicants’ sense of autonomy at the interview stage.

“If autonomy and flexibility are big parts of a company culture, it’s best to screen for that during interviews,” said Marc Ian Prine, an industrial/organizational psychologist and owner of Management Integrating Psychology Consulting. “Ask questions that get at a time they saw something nobody else did and took it upon themselves to act.”

Some questions that can help you assess an applicant’s autonomy include:

  • What’s a time when a plan at a previous job went awry? How did you react?
  • When have you done something novel at work?
  • Share a time when you didn’t follow company protocol. What happened?

“Look to see if they were able to pivot well in an unexpected environment. Listen to whether they saw the experience as an opportunity,” said Prine.

Related: Interview Cheat Sheet: 5 Essential Questions You Must Ask Job Candidates

Set some boundaries

Ashira Prossack

“Train workers to do their job, and let them do it without micromanaging them.” – Ashira Prossack

Your employee handbook already lays out plenty of rules for staff to follow. But even when you’re encouraging them to think outside of protocol, it’s helpful to define boundaries.

“Most often employees aren’t clear about what they need to have approved by a manager and what they’re able to do on their own. Take the guesswork out of it and establish some ground rules,” said Ashira Prossack, a business coach and founder of The Generational Factor.

You might be comfortable allowing staff to grant discounts of 10 percent to customers to make up for a company error, or give out a free cocktail to a guest celebrating a special event — all without approval from management. The key is to make sure your employees know when to draw the line and go to their supervisor for guidance.

Offer value-based training

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Even when you’re encouraging employees to think outside the box, it’s helpful to define boundaries of which decisions need your approval. (Photo: PR Image Factory/Shutterstock)

It goes without saying that your workforce is only as strong as its training. Focus on infusing your company mission and values at every stage of training to give workers something to fall back on when surprises pop up.

“With proper communication, employees internalize these core values and use them to navigate gray areas by making sure their decisions are aligned with the overall company vision,” said Jessica Prater, owner of J. Prater Consulting.

Related: Tips for Training Your Employees More Effectively

Before you can share your values with staff, clarify them yourself and make sure they’re carried through every element of your business, she said. Telling your employees you value fairness doesn’t go very far if you deliberately try to lowball a vendor. Be an example they can follow autonomously.

“One of the biggest reasons high potential workers leave good businesses is because values and actions are not aligned,” said Prater.

Be consistent in how you communicate your business’s values, she advised.

“For a very small business, this may look like conversations with every employee when they are hired and regular re-enforcement of that vision in annual performance reviews. There’s no perfect formula, but consistency is key.”

Incentivize the right behavior

Marc Ian Prine

“Incentivize the right behavior. When you see somebody go above and beyond, give praise publicly.” – Marc Ian Prine (Photo: Marc Ian Prine)

Employees may feel justifiably wary when a situation calls for going against protocol. Commend creative decision-making that works to advance your business’s mission, said Prine.

“Incentivize the right behavior. When you see somebody go above and beyond, give praise publicly,” he said,

Public acknowledgement of a job well done not only rewards smart decisions, it also offers additional guidance the rest of the staff can use to influence their independence.

Allow mistakes to happen

When you’re empowering your staff to be more autonomous, you have to relinquish a lot of control. Build trust by encouraging independence, and not micromanaging.

“Train workers to do their job, and let them do it without micromanaging them,” said Prossack. “While there’s nothing wrong with making sure they’re doing things correctly and following the rules, there’s a difference between being supportive and basically making decisions for them.”

Resist the temptation to jump in and solve problems when you see them on the horizon. Minor hiccups are learning opportunities for staff and will allow them to perform more independently in the future.

“Allow staff to fail and make mistakes. Part of empowering your workforce is trusting that they’ll do the right thing at least 95 percent of the time,” she said.

Related: Is Your Management Style Hurting Your Small Business?

Make your goals their goals

Joshua Evans

“When staff feel like they are part of the large organizational vision, they will work tirelessly to contribute to its success.” – Joshua Evans (Photo: Joshua Evans)

You might have a very clear idea of your goals, but does your staff? Getting employees involved in the big picture can help them make creative moves that advance those goals, said Joshua Evans, owner of HR consulting firm Culture Consulting Associates.

“When staff feel like they are part of the large organizational vision, they will work tirelessly to contribute to its success. People want to be part of something special, and when you let your employees in on the ‘secret,’ they will make decisions and take actions that are in line with the company’s overall culture,” he said.

When your staff understand the boundaries of autonomy, feel supported in acting independently and have a personal investment in goals, they’ll make decisions that benefit your business — without you even having to ask.

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