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Do “Self-Driving” Employees Still Need Leaders?

By Laurence Pintenat

Elon Musk predicts that within two years a person will be able to climb into the back seat of a car, type an address into an onboard computer, and take a nap while the self-driving car safely delivers her to the destination. The autonomous vehicle will do all of the things that the human driver used to do: follow the rules of the road, obey traffic signals, and avoid collisions. Today, though, self-driving cars still need a person at the helm to take the wheel in the case of a malfunction or unforeseen danger.

Self-DrivingEven with their current limitations, self-driving cars are the exception, not the rule, when it comes to autonomous technologies. While many jobs that used to be completed by human hands are now being done by robotic arms performing rote maneuvers that can be automated by machines, experts say that for at least the next few decades we will need people to do the heavy lifting in jobs requiring highly cognitive tasks. People solve problems better than computers and we bring creativity, vitality, and motivation that machines sorely lack. So while we may be automating at work, the autonomous workplace—where people are replaced by computers able to make independent decisions, learning and changing with newly acquired knowledge—is still the stuff of futurists’ dreams.

But what about an autonomous workforce? One made up of self-driven individuals working creatively to reach their goals—and the organization’s—with nothing more than a set of directions? Punch in the course then let your people use their skills and knowledge, the very things you’ve hired and trained them for, to drive toward the future.

What leader wouldn’t love spending time on setting strategy and looking long-term rather than navigating the tricky business of addressing workplace problems and keeping everyone engaged and on the same page?

What does an autonomous workforce look like?

To become autonomous, employees need the right motivations, skills, and ongoing opportunities to improve performance and grow. Team members who are involved in decisions about their job perceive that they have more identity and variety in their jobs. They feel connected, valued, and motivated—the first steps towards autonomy.

And as employees continue to engage, learn, and grow, they’ll continue to build confidence and self-motivation in order to:

  • Understand the bigger picture. Individuals who can “zoom out” from their day-to-day tasks are more likely to perform well on their overall objectives.
  • Set meaningful goals that resonate with both the organization and their own values and goals.
  • Focus and avoid distractions that cause them to struggle.
  • Ask for and receive feedback (both positive and improvement-focused), which will energize them and set them up for success.
  • Access unique growth opportunities so they can grow not only as professionals or leaders, but also as people.

Do autonomous employees need leaders?

For many, a natural question arises: Why do we need leaders if people are autonomous and self-motivated?

Like today’s autonomous car, which requires a defined destination and somebody who can course correct in the event of unfamiliar trouble ahead, an autonomous employee needs direction and a steady hand when problems pop up. Conflict arises. Motivation wanes. But unlike an autonomous car, which takes bits and bytes of zeros and ones as inputs to process and react to, an individual’s sometimes messy daily interactions dictate how he or she navigates, learns, and grows. Because people act like, well, people, each of these interactions can lead to an accident. It is the job of the leader to help their direct reports avoid the big crashes.

The good news is that experience and research show the little things that make a great leader—what DDI calls the Interaction Essentials—are critical even when working with highly motivated employees. And the payoff in feeding and growing an autonomous workforce is significant: When leaders provide support without removing responsibility, they build team members’ sense of ownership of the task or assignment as well as the confidence that they can accomplish it.

Self-driven and empowered employees still need a human touch to get the subtle insights they need to continue growing. Even more important, they need leaders who can define a clear and meaningful path for the future, and help employees keep in mind both short- and long-term consequences of their actions.

As such, leaders of autonomous employees still need to:

  • Engage in short discussions—with full and focused attention on the person, not just the task at hand—about emerging issues by being available when needed and on demand.
  • Be a “rear-view mirror” for reflection and feedback after challenging moments.
  • Provide stretch learning opportunities to continue building skills and engaging employees.
  • Ask the right open-ended questions at the right moment to stimulate a sense of purpose and reinforce accountability.
  • Catalyze performance and growth by finding the right match between the organization’s values and the individual’s personal and practical needs.
  • Present meaningful problems to solve and challenging opportunities to embrace.

When leaders do these things consistently, they’ll nurture and support an environment in which autonomous, accountable, and hyper-collaborative team members thrive.

Want to learn more about the critical skills leaders need to empower self-driven, motivated employees? Download The Essential Guide to Interaction Essentials.

Laurence PintenatBased in DDI’s Paris office, Laurence Pintenat works with global organizations to define and implement the leadership strategy and solutions. Outside of work, she has a passion for contemporary dance, performing on stage once a year. This reflects one of her personal mottos: “Movement is life!”(whether it is fast or slow, big or small, or physical or intellectual).

Posted: 19 Jul, 2017,

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