Responsible Autonomy

Accountability is a two-way street, when you hold someone accountable, they need to hold themselves accountable too. Recently, we discussed what it is to take ownership of a given task or project, more just about ticking boxes, taking ownership of a task is about responsible autonomy.

Taking on autonomy is often more difficult than it may first seem, we don’t know what we don’t know – a given task might have steps we are unaware of or don’t know how to complete, or it may require a working knowledge of tools and workflows that we don’t have, or, far more commonly, we don’t know what the common pitfalls and issues are and where we will encounter them, kneecapping our ability to solve or avoid them.

Autonomy isn’t really something which can be given, it can be granted but only in that it can be made available, think of it like breathing room, it is up to you to take that autonomy and make something of it. Let’s take a look at what you, a person looking for more autonomy in the workplace, can do to not only be granted the room to move, but to actually become autonomous.

Assess your strengths – take a look at your strengths and abilities, assess any gaps in skills that you may have (skills gaps between yourself and any co-workers in the same role), recognise and discuss them with your manager. Be frank about any skills you lack but that your role requires and find ways to make up the difference (short courses, online research, etc).

Consider what the work asks of you – you were hired because your skillset matched the job requirements, but many tasks will require different angles, strengths, and abilities. Understand that this is less about assessing your strengths and more about understanding which strengths you need to use in the moment.

Consider your colleagues – different people have different strengths, needs and priorities, they will reward different things and will communicate differently. Ask your co-workers which form of communication they prefer (digital, such as email, Slack, Whatsapp, etc, or face-to-face). Find out what it is they need from you (and how they want to receive it) in order to do their jobs. The more informed you are about where your work is going and what it will contribute to, the better, you can’t consider something if you don’t know what it is to begin with.

Communicate, always – communicate with your team members, your peers, your manager, anyone who works with you or reports to you. Be aware that most of this doesn’t require meetings, these conversations can just as easily take the form of short email chains or a five-minute phone call. Things go wrong when we don’t talk to one another about what we are doing; discuss tasks with your colleagues, keep people in the loop about your plans and progress, talk about any challenges you are facing (or anticipating), ask for feedback, and when someone else’s work relies on yours, or vice versa, meet with them and plan ahead.

If people feel you talk too much, you can always dial it down for next time, but you can’t do anything about the conversation you didn’t have when you needed to have it.

The sooner, the better – when something goes wrong, immediately inform your manager and co-workers, give them an assessment of the situation and explain how you intend to solve it and how long it should take. More likely than not, especially where deliverables are involved, other people are relying on your work. Don’t wait until the last minute to inform someone that your part on a project is going to be late, the sooner they know, the sooner they can plan around the problem (and potentially even help you solve it).

Being responsible, and by extension, taking ownership, isn’t about doing everything right the first time, it is about doing everything in your power to ensure that things go smoothly.