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COVID-19: a time to give employees more independence

The COVID-19 crisis could prompt you to “turn the screws,” adopting a more controlling leadership style. But China’s Haier Group has come through this crisis by encouraging its staff to be more autonomous instead.

The manufacturing giant Haier Group abandoned its top-down pyramid structure several years ago, opting instead to operate through small, autonomous business units. Mid-level managers were given the choice of leaving the group or taking over one of the 4,000 units of 10 to 15 workers as independent entrepreneurs.

These micro-entrepreneurs have real decision-making powers and coordinate with each other through in-house platforms. This flexibility meant they were able to fill 99.8 percent of their orders in the middle of a health crisis. Of course, this isn’t the right time to undertake such a change. But you could draw on Haier’s example:

– Increase the autonomy of some teams by authorizing them to react quickly without hierarchical approval;

– Encourage an entrepreneurial attitude among staff by tasking a single person with resolving a problem;

– Communicate as transparently as possible. For example, you could record key video conferences and share them with your staff via intranet. Everyone will better understand the decisions taken.

– Make the best use possible of a limited number of digital collaboration tools to facilitate quick, informal interaction. This will make it easier to make the right decisions fast. In short, give yourself permission to relinquish a little power in a time of crisis, and help your employees find the means to act independently.


To go further: “How Autonomy Creates Resilience in the Face of Crisis“, Howard Yu and J. Greeven (MIT Sloan Management Review, 23 mars 2020.)

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Françoise Tollet
Published by Françoise Tollet
She spent 12 years in industry, working for Bolloré Technologies, among others. She co-founded Business Digest in 1992 and has been running the company since 1998. And she took the Internet plunge in 1996, even before coming on board as part of the BD team.