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4 min read

Five Stages of Autonomy

Five Stages of Autonomy

I came across an article by Matt Mullenweg about what he calls the Five Levels of Autonomy.  It is an interesting article which is worth reading at length, but in brief the five levels are:

  • Level Zero autonomy is a job which cannot be done unless you’re physically there
  • Level One autonomy where the work isn't remote-friendly
  • Level Two where work is enabled remotely, for a while, but not intended as a long term solution.
  • Level Three sees increased benefit from a remote work scenario and accrued social benefits kick in for a worker (e.g. doing homework with the kids because you aren't in the office)
  • Level Four is where work output is judged on what is produced, not hours in the office and real-time meetings are treated with increased respect
  • Level Five is Nirvana: when work is performed at a higher level than it ever could be in an office

Apart from observing the obvious, that there are six levels in a five level model, it seems a classic example of a man with a hammer sees every problem as a nail. In this case, a man with an online business sees every problem as having a virtual solution. It is also arguably a result of a misunderstanding of the notion of an autonomous workplace, which is a philosophical rather than technical solution.

A fact that is self-evident to the privacy focused as the monitoring tools available in platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams etc. mean a manager can more closely monitor employees in the virtual realm than they could in a traditional office. Making remote working a very poor advertisement for workplace autonomy.

Studies indicate that some 75% of employees want increased autonomy in their jobs. An equal number are concerned their talents and abilities are not effectively utilised at work. Given these numbers, too many managers militate against autonomy in their employees. Not because of the lax IT implementation of remote working solutions, but because of the authority gap.

In short this, is when a manager withholds an unreasonable amount of authority from a given employee when said authority is needed to complete the task. This withholding of authority caps the autonomy of an employee and hinders their ability to perform their role or achieve their goal.

B. F. Skinner established that changes in behaviour are far more effectively achieved when positive reinforcement is used, as opposed to negative reinforcement or punishment. Armed with such knowledge, the solution to managerial sand bagging of an organisation is to shift from an environment of coercion and fear to positively recognising individuals for their work. This in turn increases sensations of freedom and by extension creates autonomy.

Armed with such knowledge, it is possible to advance an actual five stage solution to autonomy in the workplace. One that can achieve it rather than merely indicating when it is happening:

1. No Person is an Island

Create an environment in which an employee is willing to learn from coaching. This is critical for autonomy as no person is an island, entire of themselves. Thus the foundation of an autonomous workplace is for employees to seek out coaching and mentoring from their colleagues and managers. If the proper climate is established, rich interactions are the result and will result in feelings of openness.

2. Independent Function

Sometimes an employee will be overly loyal to their manager or their business. To the extent that they become a liability because they are so dependent on the person or the institution that they fail to act with a necessary level of independence. Organisations need to reflect on the level of independence their employees exhibit (this goes for managers as much as it goes for entry level operatives). Only by allowing individuals to make their own decisions, can an organisation rise above the competition. As such, when an obstacle is met, let your employees bear the initial responsibility for determining next steps and for generating solutions.

3. Purpose of Autonomy

The purpose of autonomy isn't so anyone can do as they please, such beliefs are a classic example of taking a literal meaning of autonomy and then misunderstanding and misapplying it in an organisational setting. Rather, the purpose of autonomy is to engender an enhanced working environment. To ensure that when people are brought in to perform a role, the organisation is getting the most out of them. Something which can only happen when employees freely (autonomously) engage in the task at hand and bring their experience and abilities to bear on the project. Put another way, hire competent people and get out of their way and let them do their job.

4. Minimise the Negative

Argument, in the sense of discussion of opposing views, is a critical element in decision making and problem solving. Phalanxes of 'yes men' are useless if a problem simply needs one person to ask 'why is it so?' But for arguments to be productive, strength of character, knowledge of subject and acceptance of having a view changed is required in individuals. Only through the rinse and repeat of this process can employees achieve self-realisation.

5. Management by Objective and Self-Control

Peter Drucker, invented the process of management by objective and self-control (MBO). The concept is simple, a manager reviews organisational goals, sets worker objectives, monitors progress, evaluates performance and gives rewards. In other words, they set the organisational objective and then let their team get on with implementing it (self-control). At this stage, employees, whether working remotely or in a traditional office, enjoy true autonomy. The Nirvana Mullenweg and Co. are in search of for their businesses.

Good night and good luck.


Cover image credit: DarwinPeacock, Maklaan, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37438920


This post is day 072 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. If you want to get involved, you can get more info from 100daystooffload.com.

Posted in: 100DaysToOffload, Leadership, Org Behaviour