3 Ways You Can Give Your Development Team More Autonomy

3 Ways You Can Give Your Development Team More Autonomy

Software developers rarely want to work for an overbearing boss. You know, the kind of manager that barks orders and complains about employees out in the open. Instead of building an environment of trust and empowerment, dictatorial managers tend to lead by fear. Micromanagers essentially do the same thing, although some may be more benevolent in their control and criticism.

Yet even leaders who want to empower their teams struggle with giving them autonomy. Traditional management models emphasizing command and control run deep in society and organizational cultures. What people believe strong leadership looks like conflicts with employees’ needs and what actually drives results.

For developers to be successful, they must feel that their boss trusts them to get the job done. If a manager is always telling team members how to do the work, they’ll lose the desire to think for themselves. Developers need enough freedom and flexibility to make decisions and solve problems. Here are three ways leaders can hand over the reins while ensuring the team and business continues to succeed.

1. Build in Downtime

Athletes often take months or years to train for big competitions. Between matches, they’re building momentum, conditioning their bodies to handle physical stress, and perfecting their techniques. However, athletes also take time to rest and recover from all that exercise and training. They know that they can only push themselves so fast for so long before they physically or mentally break down.

The pace developers work at can be similar to athletes’ training schedules. Sometimes teams need to work in sprints because they’re up against critical deadlines. But if software developers keep up this pace for long, they’ll burn out. Their work quality and productivity will eventually drop, leading to missed milestones and unhappy clients. Like athletes, software teams need slow periods and downtime to recover and think about ways to improve.

Managers can help schedule downtime for their teams by being organized and transparent about workloads. Instead of overwhelming developers with a constant influx of high-priority project demands, use a project management tool to lay out tasks. This way, teams will see what needs to be done now and what’s coming down the pike. Stand back so employees can self-manage their workloads based on business and individual needs.

2. Encourage Group Responsibility

When the boss makes all the decisions, it’s easier for employees to think they’re not responsible for the results. One of the negative effects of micromanagement is that staff members stop believing in the work. Because employees get the message that leaders don’t have confidence in their abilities, they lose motivation. This includes the desire to do a good job, innovate, work as a team, and go above and beyond.

As a result, developers become more dependent on team leads and supervisors to dictate all the details. Employees turn into order takers rather than contributors. It’s a detrimental cycle that’s not good for anybody, including the boss. Instead of having a team that takes initiative and shares responsibility, micromanagement puts more on leaders’ plates.

Encouraging group decision making and responsibility flips the dynamic around. It’s no longer up to the boss to command and control every detail. Teams become empowered to come up with solutions and demonstrate their expertise. Developers turn into active participants and see their ideas come to fruition. It’s a more rewarding situation for leaders and followers, with managers becoming more of a guiding hand.

3. Critique Processes, Not People

A surefire way to kill motivation and morale is by criticizing employees instead of processes. When managers imply developers are “lazy” or “uncooperative,” it discourages autonomy. It sends the false message that the person is always at fault for undesired outcomes. Team members will be more likely to adopt the attitude of “just tell me what you want me to do.”

That’s because assigning blame to someone’s personal characteristics makes them lose faith in their judgment and ability. When developers lose confidence and trust, they don’t just lose it in themselves. Teams begin to distrust their leaders and colleagues. The work environment becomes political instead of productive and collaborative, as people take self-protective measures.  

Managers of software development teams can help prevent this by supporting and demonstrating criticism of processes and procedures. Mistakes at work and with projects will happen. But it’s usually because of miscommunications, the absence of proper workflows, and unclear expectations.

It also takes time and practice to learn and master specific tasks. A lack of tools, including mentorship, can often contribute to subpar results. Identifying and correcting poor processes lets developers know critiques aren’t personal and their contributions are valued.  

Giving Software Teams Autonomy

Providing developers with more independence and control over their work starts with a vision. Managers may want to empower their teams but can become torn between granting flexibility and achieving superior business results. If they become too hands-off, project tasks could fall through the cracks. Being too controlling, on the other hand, could produce the same negative results, as developers stop working toward team objectives.   Self-determination theory suggests that employees who have autonomy at work are more likely to be satisfied, fulfilled, and engaged. From staff members’ perspectives, autonomy establishes a link between their contributions and business outcomes. They see that their decisions and actions matter. Allowing for downtime, encouraging group responsibility, and focusing critiques on processes will help managers create a culture of self-direction and meaningful rewards.


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