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.)