Towards Sustainable Productivity – VI Autonomy and Accountability

The key to reconcile these two factors lies in self-managing teams and workplace democracy.

Accountability is essential for sustained productivity. People have to be made accountable to certain standards of performance or productivity targets. But at the same time they have to be given a certain amount of autonomy to reach these goals in their own way, without too much of interference or control from the upper layers of hierarchy or stifling rules and inhibitions. But how to practically reconcile these two apparently conflicting factors?

The key to this reconciliation lies in building a decentralised and democratic workplace. Emerging corporate experience points out to two factors which can lead to a genuine workplace democracy where accountability is married to autonomy. The first factor is self-managing teams. Wherever possible, especially in the domain of frontline employees who are in direct contact with customers, self-organising teams have to be formed with maximum freedom to decide, plan, organise their work and achieve their goal with minimum supervision or interference from hierarchical authority. For example, in Ritz Carlton, the frontline team made of the desk manager, chef, janitors, receptionist, stewards, housekeepers, are given full freedom to organise and deliver customer service with only some broad guidelines. However, we must note here that freedom alone is not enough for effective functioning of a self-managing team. The members of the team should be given sufficient training, knowledge, information and skill to do their work. In the following passage Christopher Barrette of Harvard Business School gives another example of a self-managing team in the Danish firm ISS in the cleaning business:

“It is a business with little margins, so they had to focus on costs. They could have regarded their employees as labourers who could do their jobs, directed in the classical hierarchical form. But instead they created individual teams that worked together on cleaning contracts.

Then they were engaged in education, where they took the front-line people through a series of training sets. First was obviously teaching them how to clean-properly. Second, to work together in a team.

Third, they started focussing on quality. Fourth they got their teams to focus on customer service and listening to customers. Fifth, the teams were taught to read financials. Eventually the teams got interested in what the customer wanted and became capable of interpreting data. This is innovation. You get costs down by driving responsibility down the organization, creating entrepreneurial initiative and leveraging ideas across the organization – it’s a different philosophy” (Christopher Barret, 1999)

Another factor is voluntary commitment to performance standards or goals which means participative management. Autonomy, self-management or empowerment becomes effective only when there is strong commitment to achieve well-defined organisational goals. This commitment has to come voluntarily from within in each team member who has to achieve the goals not authoritatively imposed from above but to be set or rather evolved through a process of dialogue, discussion and consultation with other team members.

One of the companies which has taken participative management to the highest level is the Brazilian firm, SEMCO, where everything from factory timings, production targets to profit-sharing, choosing factory location decided by worker-committees. The advantage of participative management is that it taps into the collective creative energy of the whole organisation.


The author is a student and practitioner in the path of integral yoga.

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