Autonomy VS. Standards

One of the few readings that sparked my interest is “The Ordinary Heroes of the Taj”, where one particular sentence stood out:


“If you empower employees to take decisions as agents of the customer, it energizes them and makes them feel in command.”


This was articulated by Senior Vice President of the Taj Group, and he attributes the two consecutive wins of the Gallup’s Great Workplace Award in India to its believe in employee autonomy and empowerment. As evident from the case, the Taj Group’s favorable organizational culture is largely due to the empowerment it gives to its employees.


In another management course that I am currently doing, we did a case on The Ritz Carlton (Ritz). What I found surprising was how the two companies took an entirely contrasting approach in training their employees.


Ritz culture is one that is very formalized; its focus is primarily placed on formalized training to consolidate its position as a high quality and service hotel. However, as the key to a successful company is its ability to respond to the ever-changing needs and nuanced desires of customers, formalized training is often criticized due to its lack of relevance and transferability of these new skill sets to the realities of the workplace.


In Taj’s case, incidental learning is encouraged, autonomy acts as an enhanced training for their employees, by increasing their ability to respond to the unpredictable situations; such as the 2008 terrorist attack on the Taj. The question then to ask is whether Ritz would be able to handle the situation as well, if it were faced with the same scenario. Given that strict service standards are to be adhered to, would a fear of doing things differently then hamper Ritz’s employees to handle the situation equally if not better?


The problem about standards is that because people are so used to doing things in a routine fashion, they forget how they should react to unforeseen circumstances. They might have an idea of how to approach the situation, but the fear of doing something not in their SOP may hinder them from taking the first step. Should autonomy or standards then be given a higher priority?


Many companies are in favor of granting more autonomy to employees due to the numerous benefits of autonomous employees. The potential benefits are that of greater employee commitment, higher retention levels, a more motivated workforce, and most importantly happier  and more engaged employees. However, despite the numerous benefits, I feel that there are certain downsides of autonomy to be considered as well.


One of the main problems of autonomy would be how employees may confuse empowerment as having the authority to do whatever they want. This may result in poor or wrong decisions being made, as well as resulting in the cultivation of arrogance amongst employees. Some employees may also find autonomy mentally straining, and may prefer having a specific guideline to follow. Further, when too much autonomy is given to employees, there could be a potential sacrifice of standards. From the company side, many companies are afraid of utilizing informal learning due to the difficult in assessing the results of these training.


This problem is particularly important to the service industry, where while personalization is valued, basic service standards should also be of utmost priority. Therefore, when should the line be drawn? Should autonomy be given?


In my opinion, I do not believe that autonomy and service standards should be seen as two ends of a spectrum that cannot be reconciled. Autonomy and service standards can work hand in hand, and this is something companies should work towards. It is commendable that companies like the Taj Group seek to empower their employees by giving them a say and a voice. However, with that being said there is beauty too in Ritz’s approach, on having a structured and formalized system to ensure that their service standards are world class. Companies should therefore seek a balance between the two, to achieve the optimal outcome. For the hotel industry, I believe that setting standards should be given utmost priority. Autonomy should also be given, but at discretion. As the saying goes, with great power, comes responsibility. The same goes for autonomy. It is therefore imperative for companies to give this authority to the people who deserve and are able to handle it.


To conclude, companies need to incorporate the beauties of the two, whereby the use of one does not necessarily mean the forgoing of another. Instead, it is all about building an organizational culture that allows for both order and uncertainty to be managed.


Some food for thought… Should formalized training and informal training be seen equally? Or should one method be favored over the other? What should companies do to enhance their organisational culture?


Have a blessed weekend ahead!(:








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