How to Be a Successful Business Owner Without Taking Agency Away From Your Employees

Published in


November 1, 2021


Milan Kordestani

Entrepreneur, writer, and founder of 3 purpose-driven companies oriented toward giving individuals control over their own discourse and creation. Milan works to produce socially positive externalities through a mindset of social architecture.

Hi! I'm Milan, an LA based founder and writer, architecting impact-first businesses.

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If nothing else, I’ve learned that being a business owner requires a great deal of compromise. When I created my first business, I had a naive mindset. I thought that, as the owner, I would essentially be able to do whatever I wanted within the confines of my organization. While I wasn’t completely wrong, I was looking at it from a singular perspective — one that only accounted for my own pursuit of personal and professional freedom.

However, everybody wants to have agency and wiggle room to be creative, grow, and contribute. This applies at any level or position. When I first started taking on partners and employees, I had these ideas about the best ways for them to succeed and add value to the business. I hadn’t consulted them on it; I simply assumed that, as contributors to the organizations, their goals would naturally align with mine. Suffice it to say, that’s not really how life or business works.

Whether you’re an employee or an employer, you have to be willing to compromise and make sacrifices. This isn’t to say that you should abandon all of your pursuits to satisfy others, but it does mean that you have to see yourself as one piece of a larger whole — even if you’re the one in charge. While most employees expect some degree of compromise when taking a job, many employers do not. This is a huge misstep, as it can create an adversarial relationship between management and the rest of your workforce. When taken to extreme degrees, it can even lead to poor productivity, high turnover, and reduced revenue.

Chasing success as a business owner and giving your employees what they want do not need to be mutually exclusive. In fact, they go hand in hand. The key is changing your mindset to develop a more holistic approach to business management.

Define Goal-Oriented Parameters For Key Players

The term “parameters” might make you feel like you’re boxing your employees in by default, but a position, department, or team cannot function without directives and goals to work toward. However, this doesn’t mean that you should tell your key team members, or really anybody at your company, exactly how to do their jobs. Instead, identify the purpose and goals of their position, and then expand on how they have control over how they fulfill their purpose and reach their goals.

Naturally, this can get tricky based on the type of work you require. However, if you work in tech, publishing, or really any industry that encourages consistent creativity and innovation, you shouldn’t hold your people back. Instead, define parameters in a way that helps each employee understand how they can contribute to their personal goals and the goals of your company. Then, give them the tools to thrive and maintain agency over how the work actually gets done.

Be a Sounding Board For Employee Ideas

As a business owner, there’s a natural inclination to drive home process efficiency at every turn. You want to get the best results for every dollar you spend or minute you work, and you likely collect a lot of data to make sure that happens. At The Doe, I’ve spent countless hours (with my team) trying to find ways to increase output without greatly increasing costs. This meant having meetings with my core team, but it also meant having open discussions with our even larger network of remote writers and editors.

If I had only spoken with “management” level employees about how we could improve our content creation processes, we would have inevitably come up with a few new ideas to try out. But none of them would have accounted for the interests of the people actually creating the content. This, in turn, would have made our initiatives less effective, as they would take away agency from our writers — the lifeblood of any publication.

Instead, we reached out to our contributors and asked them what we could do to improve efficiency and output. In the end, we saw the results we wanted and showed our employees that they have just as much control over their work as we do. All it took was a little collaboration and compromise.

Use Employee Mistakes As Learning Opportunities — For You

If you’ve ever held a 9 to 5 job, you’ve probably screwed up at one time or another; it’s only human. Unfortunately, many owners and managers use these events as opportunities to assert their authority, acting like principals scolding misbehaving children rather than adults speaking to fellow adults. When errors or missteps become an excuse to punish or reprimand, it makes employees far less likely to experiment, innovate, and follow their instincts at work.

I would argue that this is one of the most insidious ways employers take agency away from their employees. You may not intend to do it, but using even subtle forms of intimidation can make your employees afraid to step out of bounds. As a result, their work will likely be adequate — nothing more and nothing less. They will never try to take back agency over their work because the consequences of making a mistake outweigh the benefits of bringing something unique to the table.

So, don’t default to punishment, reprimands, or even corrective language. Instead, ask questions. If a serious error did occur, what lead the employee to make it? Is there a way that they can continue using a similar method without making the same mistake in the future? In 99.9% of cases, it’s far better to listen and learn than scold and punish.