Giving Empowerment or Taking Autonomy – Part 2

Read Part One here.

Let’s explore another aspect. Imagine an individual or team where the desire for autonomy or empowerment does not exist. This may sound unlikely but there are more examples of this out there than you can imagine.

In a traditional command and control organisation, dependent behaviour for long standing employees is often ingrained into each employee’s behaviours. In fact, if you are an individual who craves independence and self-determination then you are unlikely to become a long standing employee at this traditional command and control organisation.

This behaviour manifests itself as more individuals, who want to be told what they need to do, when they need to do it, are brought into the organisation. These individuals do not want to be responsible for making decisions about how they should work, when they should work and what tasks they should be performing.  By no means am I condemning this kind of behaviour. The “mechanics” of a team can be very important and as long as they participate to a certain extent in the team “independence” then their ability to complete the tasks they are given can be extremely beneficial.

The difficulties come when a whole team is made up of these people, in the same way that a team can be highly dysfunctional if made up entirely of independent, self-determining types. (This type of person often comes accompanied with a certain amount of ego and too many of those in a team can lead to endless intellectualisation rather than productivity). All teams require a good mixture of personality types, along with various strengths and weaknesses in skill set in order to function.

Fundamentally if a team is made up entirely of individuals exhibiting dependant behavioural traits, especially if that behaviour is ingrained, the likelihood of any of them taking the opportunity to behave autonomously is small. However, there may be a response to the offer of empowerment and this delegated authority may lead the team or at least some of the individuals to break from their ingrained behaviour and then begin to desire autonomy for the team. There is the equal chance that none of them will respond to the empowerment and therefore the team will never be effective as an agile team.

What am I suggesting? Autonomy is a progression from empowerment. Not all teams or individuals will be autonomous but they may be open to empowerment which could steer them towards autonomy.  And perhaps even more controversial, I’m suggesting that some teams are made up of individuals who will never respond to empowerment and will therefore never be autonomous, and will therefore fail to become truly agile.

Is it possible to predict if a team will respond?

Dan Pink states that autonomy, mastery (the desire to learn) and purpose are the three things that motivate us. In my experience dependent behaviour (that which does not respond to the opportunity to become autonomous) is, if not a basic personality trait, frequently a symptom of demotivation. It is in these cases that a move towards an agile approach may be applied successfully because increasing motivation is easier than changing someone’s actual personality. If a person will respond to empowerment then they are on the journey towards autonomy.

  1. Geoff Higgins | April 27, 2012 at 10:09 pm Reply


    I have been grappling with some of these concepts too – in my case working with middle managers and aspiring middle managers. I think I need to talk to them about (a) the limits of autonomy in a corporate environment; and (b) personally acting autonomously, while empowering the people reporting to them in the hierarchy.

    You might also like to add Covey’s concept of mature interdependence into the mix to assist teams in making sense of the gap/balance/interplay between dependence and independence.


  2. Marvin Toll | March 9, 2012 at 8:18 am Reply


    Having lived in St. Petersburg, Russia for fifteen months in the 90′s… I agree that when the human species lives in a Command & Control environment for multiple generations you will certainly find “an individual or team where the desire for autonomy or empowerment does not exist”.