Today we have a guest editorial as Steve is traveling.
Over the course of my career, I’ve been at various times an employee, employer, contractor, consultant, and manager, and with each of those jobs I’ve had varying amounts of autonomy. In general, I find roles with a high degree of autonomy to be more interesting and satisfying, though that isn’t to say that jobs can’t be interesting without it. My focus today is on helping you find a path to more autonomy, which also means we’ll touch on its word relative agency and how the two of those sometimes relate to trust.
Imagine you are hiring a DBA or data engineer or developer and they say they want a lot of autonomy. What does that mean? Few managers or clients are going to want write a blank check of “do what you want, when you want” and to be fair that’s probably not what the candidate is asking for, but you have to explore it (better now than after you’ve hired them) which leads to asking the question “what does autonomy mean to you?”. That discussion can quickly reveal if there is a large gap between the expectation and what the manager will support. It might also show the manager that here is someone that can take the ball and run with it.
That conversation can be wide ranging. Often, it’s about the fear of being micro-managed or being locked into a system that values process over people. It can also reveal that as much or more than autonomy they want to be able to make a difference – agency – and that leads to more good conversation. Hearing them answer “in what way do you want to make a difference?” can help you understand their context. Maybe they want to join a company that aligns with their ideals. Maybe they want to build a world class data environment. Maybe they want to tune every query.
It's possible, and common, to have autonomy without agency. You can also have agency without autonomy. Can you have either without trust?
For some managers, for some hires, the answer could easily be no. Verify, then trust. It might be because it’s an intern, because it’s a new role, or because that is how the manager approaches the job. Show you can do it, show you can work unsupervised, and over time you may get to work largely unsupervised. For other managers, they start with trust (or something close to it), making the assumption that you can and will do the work assigned, ask questions when needed, and will raise issues to them before it becomes a bonfire. Trust, then verify. You might prefer one approach over the other, but both are valid.
For a manager, having team members that are capable of autonomy and agency makes their team stronger and their life easier. Give the team the work, remove the roadblocks, and cross things off the list is the ideal in the life of an ideal manager. Just keep in mind every manager has their own fears, experiences, and constraints that shape how they work and manage. Sometimes it’s them, not you.
Hopefully by now you can see the outline of a path forward. If you want more autonomy, you have to be able to explain clearly what you want (and perhaps why it’s a win for the manager too). You also have to be prepared to win the confidence of the manager who is of the verify then trust mindset and the easiest way to do that is to understand what they want and deliver on it, every time, with no prompting.
I’ll finish by saying that while I think increasing amounts of autonomy is an important part of career progression, I’m mindful that not everyone wants it in the same way or the same degree. Autonomy can be empowering, but it can also be stressful compared to being given a plan to work and working the plan. At some point autonomy means being accountable and that’s when you might start to empathize a bit more with the verify then trust management style!