People Management – Autonomy vs. Control


There are two ends of the spectrum in regards to managing people. Direct control with strong micro-management and autonomy for employees to do what they deem effective as long as it contributes to performance. Both ways are valid ways to lead people towards organizational performance. However, one method requires heavy involvement from the manager, while the other allows a manager more time to do what is effective in their responsibilities. Autonomy instead of control not only liberates employees, but relieves managers from “babysitting/micromanaging” and not focusing on what is core to the business.

A common misconception is there is one “right way” to approaching a task or a problem. This comes from different “lens” that we look out of, one individual whose strength is in strategy will believe to get a task done could be planning, and one who focuses on execution will believe the “right way” is to dive into the task and see what works. Are both of them wrong or is one way better than the other? No, just different perspectives and different thought processes. The manager’s role is not to impose their “lens” on top of their team’s “lenses” but to properly focus team members onto the target they must achieve. Because the associate will understand her strengths better than the manager, the associate will then be able to effectively work towards the task.

Letting associates run autonomous however does carry risk. First, you need the right people in the organization. Are they aligned with the organization’s core values? Are they capable of working effectively with their teams? Do they properly contribute to the enterprise? Are they proven to meet or exceed results? If one is wasting time not focusing on performance in the first place, will letting them run free help that? Probably not, the risk outweighs the benefit.

Second, the associates cannot exceed organization boundaries in completing their tasks. Jack Welch when running General Electric had the goal of the GE businesses to be “#1 or #2 in their areas or to exit/revamp the business”. Executives and employees however could not ruin their integrity by stealing resources from other areas of General Electric and the corporate playing field had to be fair. Imposing boundaries empower associates to come up with creative ways to tackle problems, instead of associates coming up with “band-aids” or “cheats” to relieve the situation.

Finally, the manager must follow up and tie the associate to performance targets. What are the metrics? What are the core values? What targets need to be hit or surpassed? The manager’s role is to guide and to “course-correct” individuals that are working by themselves to achieve their goals. This is not micro-management, this is delivering feedback and coaching techniques in order to fine tune an employee’s strengths. Controlling directs can help business performance when you are there at all times, allowing directs to think for themselves and effectively reach and surpass performance metrics ensure an organization’s contribution to its customers today and in the future.


Jorrian Gelink

Management Architect

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2 Responses to “People Management – Autonomy vs. Control”

  1. Dear Mr Gelink,

    I am a doctor student on management and organization. My research on autonomy management Can you help me? ı couldnt find any article about autonomy.


  1. Knowledge Worker Productivity Requires Autonomy | Collaborative Planning & Social Business - January 24, 2011

    [...] for the goals of the organization. There is no single best answer, the approach to management will depend upon the job and the skill level of the [...]

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