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Want to be a better leader? Consider these two strategies.

“It’s a delicate balance between autonomy and social support, but the answers are there if you ask—and keep asking.”


Illustration by Nien-Ken Alec Lu

Times of change are inevitable, and businesses aren’t immune from events that unfold outside their control. But how an organization responds to those challenges can make or break its prospects for future success.

 Is your company ready for change?

From climate catastrophes to the next global health crisis, the world will continue to conjure up external challenges that may test the limits of your organization, its leadership, and the individuals that make up the org chart. Fortunately, there are things leaders can do to help make their organizations more resilient from the inside out. 

According to a recent study published in the journal Organizational Psychology Review, creating an autonomous yet supportive work environment encourages employees to stay motivated and develop their skills, even when facing choppy waters—economic or otherwise.

So, how do business leaders strike the ideal balance between autonomy and social support during uncertain times? The answer may start with looking at workers’ lives–specifically, the stressors they experience–more holistically, suggests Evangelia Demerouti, a co-author of the research paper and an academic with professorships at Eindhoven University of Technology in The Netherlands.

Demerouti points to the 2006 Job Demands–Resources theory that hypothesizes that stress increases as demand increases without enough resources. 

“Before Covid-19, we believed that job demands and resources were all we needed to predict outcomes,” Demerouti tells The Workback. “But we learned that wasn’t sufficient. What about the stressors that occur outside of the workplace? Someone’s emotional and physical health will impact their work performance.”

How to help employees to deal with demands and to develop themselves:

  1. Create autonomy

  2. Offer social support

To come to her conclusion that autonomy and social support are key drivers of employee achievement and resilience, Demerouti analyzed more than 100 scholarly articles. She also recorded her observations during the global pandemic. 

The research offers some key suggestions for organization leaders: They should, perhaps more than they did in the past, consider how the organization influences and is influenced by the worker, their job, and their family.

How autonomy leads to workforce resilience

Honoring the many layers of an employee’s life begins by allowing them to work how, when, and where they’d like. Demerouti’s research shows the infrastructure to allow for this autonomy can help workers meet their demands and develop their skills along the way.

Demerouti says an organization should clarify roles and provide continuous and transparent communication from senior leaders to junior team members to create an autonomous work culture.

“Different demands and resources are more relevant based on the kind of crisis and the employee, but by clarifying roles, executives, middle management, and frontline employees are all empowered to participate in their own sensemaking,” she says.

Evangelia Demerouti

“By clarifying roles, executives, middle management, and frontline employees are all empowered to participate in their own sensemaking,” says Evangelia Demerouti, a Full Professor at Eindhoven University of Technology.

According to Demerouti, no matter the size or goals of a company, the general infrastructure of any one workforce consists of executives, middle management, and frontline or entry-level workers. Executives are responsible for clearly setting and stating company goals, middle management determines how those goals will be achieved, and it is up to frontline workers to achieve such goals.

Middle management can also continue to mediate between top managers and frontline workers. At the same time as they’re encouraging frontline workers to determine their own risk management, they’re also available to make sure such decisions align with top players. 

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“The idea is that they’re given the tools and understand the goals, so now frontline workers should be able to make in-the-moment decisions without checking in with their managers or executives,“ Demerouti says.

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How to create autonomy to drive greater performance

Autonomy, however, doesn’t mean employees want to be forgotten. “Channels should also be left open so that any employee can be empowered to share ideas on how best to do their job during a crisis,” Demerouti says.

Even with the required tools and trust in place, job demands tend to increase during times of crisis. At the same time, stressors outside of work also increase. For example, severe weather may leave workers without the necessary childcare to complete tasks. That’s where social support comes in.

Adequate social support can be tangible or intangible and come from a co-worker, an executive,  or even from one manager to another. It can come in the form of providing tutorials on new technology, childcare, or mental health services.

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for fostering more socially supportive workplaces. That’s because each and every worker who makes up a given workforce has unique needs and can be affected by a crisis in different ways. With this in mind, leaders can use collaborative communication and consistent check-ins with employees to foster a more supportive environment.

“It’s about showing employees that you care about them, whether it’s a service line that people can call when they have problems or suggestions of setting up groups of people to discuss certain topics,” says Demerouti, who points to well-being as an important topic. 

Numerous studies point to the positive effects social support in the workplace has on the workforce, whether during a crisis or not. For example, a three-wave longitudinal study on 1,852 employees tracked their changing attitudes as social support increased. There was an undeniable connection between social support improvements and employee “hope, self-efficacy, resilience, and optimism,” observed the study, published in 2019 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

“It’s a delicate balance between autonomy and social support,” Demerouti says. “But the answers are there if you ask—and keep asking.”