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Strategies for Building Autonomy at Work

Autonomy is a critical element of the people experience for many reasons. It is a powerful motivator, and an enabler of wellbeing, but it is also a facilitator for your business of things like, agility, innovation, and creativity, as building it means moving away from ‘command and control’ structures. Let us take a closer look at autonomy, what it is and why it is important.

Autonomy is a critical element of the people experience for many reasons. It is a powerful motivator, and an enabler of wellbeing, but it is also a facilitator for your business of things like, agility, innovation, and creativity, as building it means moving away from ‘command and control’ structures. 

Let us take a closer look at autonomy, what it is and why it is important. 

But if you would rather skip to the strategies, feel free. 

What is Autonomy? 

Autonomy is something that is easy to relate to, especially when you have experienced a workplace where it is absent and you feel constrained and controlled, leading to demotivation and stress. When you have autonomy, however, it can feel great, providing energy, and supporting creativity and personal accomplishment. So, what exactly is this powerful motivator? 

Having autonomy means being able to exercise choice, but it is a little more than that. Deci and Ryan, who developed Self Determination Theory, described autonomy as “an inner endorsement of one’s actions”1. Another way of saying this is that our choices are not only free but are aligned to your whole sense of self – to your personal beliefs and values if you like. 

In motivational theory, and specifically Self-Determination Theory, autonomy is considered a basic human need, alongside competence and relatedness (feelings of closeness and belonging). (You might have come across Dan Pink’s slight variation on this, in ‘Drive’2). 

If those three needs are met, we are more likely to do things of our own choice and experience higher levels of both performance and well-being. 

So, let’s explore some different aspects of autonomy a little more.  

Autonomy as choice  

We can choose to do something, as described before because it is inherently satisfying or intrinsically motivating. At work, you might spend more time on an interesting task you feel like you are making progress on, and you know will be valued. 

But what about the thing you choose to do because you know that it is the right thing to do in the context of the company’s mission which you wholeheartedly believe in? That is not intrinsic motivation, but probably is ‘autonomous motivation’ (described in Self Determination Theory as ‘Identified Regulation’) if you are not being manipulated, coerced, or doing it ‘for the money’ or approval. 

So that also helps us understand what is not autonomous. If you’re doing something because of an external reward, such as money or approval, or to avoid punishment, then it’s not truly autonomous.  

But this also highlights that autonomy is not absolute or binary. It’s relative. 

Autonomy as freedom 

To exercise choice, you must have some freedom over what you do. At work, you can be ‘locked down’ to certain actions and have limited control over what you do or don’t do. This might be because your work is heavily systematised, but it might be because it’s heavily monitored, or performance managed from moment to moment.  

On the other hand, you might have absolute freedom and that can be equally paralysing. Too much freedom or too little guidance can, paradoxically, inhibit your ability to choose. 

Autonomy as influence 

But surely there is another level of autonomy? At work, autonomy is also about influence. Sure, you might be able to make choices about how you go about your work, but do you have a say in things that affect you? Are you listened to or consulted when there is changed? Do you have a say in team decisions? While autonomy as freedom is about not having constraints put upon you, autonomy is also about how much influence you as an individual have on your environment. 

Why is Autonomy important in the workplace? 

Autonomy is important in the work context and has many reported and researched benefits relating to employee engagement, performance, and wellbeing. 

What’s pretty clear is that ‘autonomous motivation’ (motivation through choice) is closely related to both employee engagement (theoretically as well as statistically) and general wellbeing, and slightly less so ‘positive work behaviour’3 (as a measure of performance).  

Of course, autonomous motivation is supported by the satisfaction of three needs: Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness. In our own framework, we separate out elements of the ‘felt experience’ further, naming autonomy, belonging, connection, growth (competence), enjoyment and purpose. 

How does autonomy support performance? 

Considering autonomy as freedom and influence gives some clues as to how it might support performance.  

Autonomy can be a source of creativity, innovation, change, agility and even risk taking (as a positive), and it can enable people to take personal responsibility or accountability. 

In an old-fashioned ‘command and control’ organisation, autonomy might not have been considered such an asset. However, that’s not always true. In organisations that deal with high-risk or crisis situations, such as the military or emergency services, while command structures are very tight, they are also highly reliant on individuals and teams to exercise autonomy within certain boundaries. Otherwise, they simply wouldn’t act when things aren’t going exactly to plan. 

Autonomy is for everyone and all roles 

So, autonomy is not a simple concept. It’s relative, personal, and contextual. 

In our conversation with Rob Baker of Tailored Thinking), he described different examples of how autonomy is relevant in different role and different levels of authority. He talked about a hotel cleaning team that gained autonomy by choosing which order to clean the rooms in; but he also talked about an executive that while she had a lot of decision-making authority felt that she had no control over her time as she ran from meeting to meeting. Building autonomy, for her, meant carving out some time each day that was hers to use as she saw fit. 

This tallies with our own client data on autonomy, which suggests that different people in quite different roles, across industries have a healthy sense of perspective on how much autonomy they should have or need. We’ve seen high levels of self-reported autonomy in manufacturing operatives, waste collectors and other very ‘operational’ settings. 

In other words, whatever industry you are in and whatever level of employee you are working with, there is opportunity to create an ‘autonomy-supportive environment’ – or to enhance your people’s sense of autonomy. 

So, what does our data say about Autonomy? 

Data from our most asked questions (from client surveys) on Autonomy suggests while people tend to be trusted to get on with their jobs, i.e., without interference (89%), fewer are empowered to make decisions that are appropriate to their role (71%), and fewer still are listened to if they share their ideas or opinions (57%). 

 

 

This suggests that most people are enjoying what we might call a ‘basic’ level of autonomy, perhaps characterised by a lack of micromanagement or interference. However, when it comes to engagement, our data also tells us that “If I share my ideas or opinions, they will be listened to,” has a greater influence than either of the other questions.  

This means that across our client base there is an opportunity to positively impact engagement by listening more to their ideas and opinions. And of course, this also suggest that a lot of opportunities to innovate or improve things is being left on the table! 

The message: Don’t get in the way of your people, trust them to make sensible decisions, but most of all, listen to them. 

When it comes to what drives these beliefs, we can see that there are both similarities and differences. 

For all three questions, having a supportive line manager is important. And for both feeling trusted to get on with the job and empowered to make appropriate decisions, access to training is important.  

The step from being trusted to get on with the job to feeling empowered to make appropriate decisions, appears to be facilitated by an open and honest workplace. This makes sense, perhaps because it implies a greater level of trust or psychological safety. 

However, the drivers of believing you will be listened to if you voice an idea or opinion depends more on people management, specifically recognition and fair treatment irrespective of differences (inclusion). 

The differences between these questions seems to make common sense, even though we have had to do our analysis only using some of our more commonly used survey questions. 

I am empowered to make decisions that are appropriate to my role 

1 

We are open and honest with each other in the workplace 

2 

I get all the support I need from my manager to do my job well 

3 

My organisation actively supports the wellbeing of its people 

4 

I have access to the training or learning I need to do my job well 

I am trusted to get on with my job 

1 

I get all the support I need from my manager to do my job well 

2 

My organisation actively supports the wellbeing of its people 

3 

I have access to the training or learning I need to do my job well 

If I share my ideas or opinions, they will be listened to 

1 

Around here, we recognise great work 

2 

I get all the support I need from my manager to do my job well 

3 

People are treated fairly here, irrespective of their differences 

 

So now we understand a little more about the dynamics of autonomy, what can you do to enable it, by creating an autonomy-supportive environment. 

Strategies for building Autonomy at work 

1. Provide autonomy-supportive leadership 

This means starting with a clear vision and mission and taking a more facilitative approach3 that enables people to deliver them. 

  • Give people opportunity to shape their own goals, which doesn’t mean all goals, all the time, but where possible.  
  • Let people find their way to meet them and avoid the temptation over-monitor or react to short-term fluctuations.  
  • Provide clear, unambiguous, and factual feedback, using information (openly) without judgment, and be positive when your people show initiative. 
  • Limit direct rewards or incentives for behaviour, or comparison with others.  
  • Coach and ask questions, to help solve problems, rather than telling people what to do. 
  • Invite opinion, challenge, and questions, acknowledging their perspective. Avoid “bring me solutions, not problems”!  

 2. Use policies and processes to create freedom within a framework 

Create a clear structure that helps guide people but provide flexibility within it.  

  • Strip down unnecessary policies, especially people policies 
  • Provide flexibility on time and location unless there’s a good reason not to 
  • Consider ‘job crafting’ as a way of giving people more control, more often, over how they work 
  • Minimise approvals and avoid pushing them ‘up the chain’  
  • Signpost with key principles and trust people to follow them. 
  • Manage ‘bad apples’ directly, don’t punish everyone else. 

3. Equip people to make decisions and use their judgement 

Competence and autonomy are closely related. By developing people, you can increase their autonomy, and increasing their autonomy will also support competence. 

  • Don’t keep people suspended in a state of dependency – invest in their skills / knowledge 
  • Create easier access to knowledge and information, online and offline (supporting self-directed learning) 
  • Recognise people for their contribution, especially when they show initiative 
  • Encourage sensible risk-taking, and use challenging situations (whether successful or ‘failures’) as opportunities to learn 

4. Implement ‘employee listening’ and involvement processes to provide employee voice 

Possibly the most powerful aspect of autonomy at work is the feeling that your voice matters. In addition to directly managing and leading with an autonomy-supporting style you can: 

  • Go beyond employee surveys (which of course we love!) and have physical listening sessions that feed action planning 
  • Invite teams to nominate representatives to be consulted when decisions are being made that affect them  
  • Ensure that teams are given the opportunity to shape, understand and take ownership of implementing change, using a facilitative approach 
  • ‘Over-communicate’ and share information openly to ensure that the feedback loop continues  

 

Now that you’ve got a toolbox full of strategies for building autonomy in your workplace, why not check out how it, along with other elements, fits into our People Experience framework. 

 

References 

  1. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1987). The support of autonomy and the control of behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(6), 1024–1037.   
  1. Pink, Daniel H. 2009. Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. Harvard (18th ed.) PINK, D. H. (2009). 
  1. Slemp, G.R., Kern, M.L., Patrick, K.J. et al. Leader autonomy support in the workplace: A meta-analytic review. Motiv Emot 42, 706–724 (2018).  

 

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