Autonomy: Self-driving workers on our journey to Agile Performance Management

I met with a group of HR Leaders recently and asked them the question "Who is responsible for performance management in your organisation?" 

Some said that HR were, others said it was line managers, and others said responsibility was transitioning away from HR towards becoming a management responsibility. 

What surprised me was that no one said each individual was responsible for their own performance. 

In the era of self-driving cars, we seem to be more comfortable to trust a computer to drive us from A to B than to trust our employees to do what we ask of them autonomously.

That's ironic when we've seen from the work of Dan Pink and others that we get the best from people when they have purpose, autonomy and pursue mastery.  

It's going to become particularly important to overcome the legacy of the paternal organisation as the employer/employee relationships change from long term exclusive relationships to short term non-exclusive relationships. That is the way it's going with the blended workforce, the less inherently loyal Gen Y's and the gig economy. 

The self-driving employee 

As workers increasingly become the CEO of themselves, what will they need to become self-driving employees. 

I think it is the same as what your self-driving car will need: 

  1.  A clear destination 
  2. To get continual signals of progress along the chosen route, and notice of immediate need for adjustment 
  3. To be regularly re-energized 

If the individual worker is the owner of performance, then additionally each one of these needs has a different set of stakeholders 

Setting a clear destination 

Thinking about traditional performance management it's not unusual for a worker to have 5 or more goals, set at the time of the annual review and then not revisited until the next one. 

Compare that to the navigation system in your car. How many destinations will it navigate to at once?  Only One! 

Even if you're sophisticated and set a final destination with waypoints, then next waypoint is really the only thing that matters to the navigation system. It is still only one! 

Suppose we started to set goals for people like this, one at a time, then straight away we clear up a lot of wasted energy spent prioritising and reprioritising, and switching costs from one thing to another.  We know that multi-tasking is a fallacy, so why set people up for failure and anxiety with too many things on their plate all at once? 

The leader is the person who should be setting the single destination, and the worker is the one who should clarify any ambiguity about precisely where it is. 

Once there is a clear destination sufficient autonomy should be provided to the worker to calculate the best route to getting there (taking into account constraints and preferences that exist). 

Continual signals 

With purpose (at least in the day to day sense) and autonomy covered in step one, now we need to capture signs of progress, and signals of any need to adjust. 

The individual is at the heart of this and should pull signals from all available sources.  This means asking for feedback proactively, passively and going through self-reflection, as well as being constantly aware of the overall surroundings and climate. 

Such signals might come from co-workers, customers, alumni, mentors, or coaches to name a few likely sources. 

Having the ability to elicit quality feedback from anyone at any time is critical. Making this an intuitive process for the requestor and provider of feedback is key. 

Relying solely on line management to give feedback is a limiting – they don’t have a sixth sense to know when it is needed most, and are often not in the best vantage point to give the most helpful input.   

Imagine if the self driving car only had one input. It wouldn't be sufficiently informed to stay on the road.  So why do we think people can deliver to their full potential without continual signals that allow them to make minor adjustments all of the time? 

Leaders should certainly give feedback as often as practical, and regardless, individuals must gather enough feedback often enough to continuously improve by themselves.  


Besides purpose, autonomy and competency, individual energy level is also important to sustained performance. 

This is where HR has a support role to play in performance management.   

HR is responsible to ensure there are sufficient charging stations available in the form of wellness initiatives, recognition programs, learning resources and support communities. There is work to do in most organisations to be ready for the near future in this regard.  

Whilst many organisations have a plethora of programs available, too often these are only accessible for full time staff. Not remote workers, not casuals, and certainly not 3rd party contractors.  Of the fragment of workers that could access them, many don’t because they are unconsciously incompetent in managing their energy. 

This is the second point of failure. The individual is falling short in their responsibility for being energized.  

Only they know where their fuel gauge sits and when a recharge is vital.  Only they know their total workload when it comes from multiple sources. Only they know if their attention is elsewhere.  Without ways of noticing inattention and fatigue, expect to see an increase in cases where workers show up for the day already exhausted because they've over exerted in their side gig the night before.  

HR needs to equip managers to deal with this, and workers to become consciously competent in managing energy and attention. 


Just like with self-driving cars, mainstream acceptance of autonomous workers is lagging behind the market forces that will make them a near term reality.   

It's understandable that managers feel threatened by self-managing employees. Organisations feel threatened by stewardship of workers who are not directly employed by them. Individuals feel threatened by personal accountability without a management shield. 

For each of these, there is a new generation of leaders, that have craved self-management. They are building organisations that embrace stewardship, and they have grown up in the digital economy, where feedback is the currency that rewards individual accountability.    

The opportunity is there to adapt to the expectation of this breed of leader, or to watch as they create challenger companies - probably starting as a side gig after hours, and over the weekends.  

At Pay Compliment, we can provide the sensors and guidance systems to help your organisation embrace self-driving workers.  Contact us for a chat if you are ready for the future of work.


Comments (1) -

  • VtQ5bDeq

    4/4/2019 12:26:43 AM | Reply

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