What is employee autonomy and why is it so important?

Dan Rogers
What is employee autonomy and why is it so important?

Here’s how Jack Welch – one of the greatest business leaders of the 21st century – summed up his job as it relates to employee autonomy:

“Place the best people for the best opportunities and to properly distribute the monies to the right places. That’s all. Communicate your ideas, distribute the resources and get out of the way

Jack inherently understood the value of employee autonomy. So do the majority of today’s high-performing companies, from Google to the 100,000 employee giant HCL. It’s not just an intangible effect, either. A recent LRN study released at the World Economic Forum in Davos found that companies whose employees reported “high levels of freedom” were 10-20 times more likely to outperform companies with low freedom scores.

But why is autonomy at work so important?

Autonomy has a huge influence on intrinsic motivation

Imagine you loved painting. Whiling away blissful summer days in the countryside painting verdant landscapes. Now imagine me standing over your shoulder all the time telling you how to do it. Not so much fun, huh? In fact, probably not fun at all (especially as I have a tendency to be quite shouty). Reducing autonomy can completely obliterate any intrinsic motivation you get from an activity.

One of the seminal papers on motivation – Self Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci) – not only proved this relation empirically, but also went on to show that motivation exists on a spectrum that is largely moderated by autonomy, and that higher degrees of motivation can only exist in an autonomous state. Or to use a less jargon-riddled explanation; you can only internalise something as fun if I give you the freedom to work it out yourself.

 

Autonomy at work - from unmotivated to intrinsic motivation

The SDT spectrum of motivation and autonomy

People with more autonomy at work are healthier and less stressed

Researchers from the University of Minnesota analyzed data collected from employees in Best Buy’s headquarters before and after a Results-Only Work Environment initiative was introduced in 2006. The researchers compared changes in health and well-being between employees who opted in to the program – i.e. be appraised just on measurable targets, with freedom to decide how to hit those targets – versus those who opted out and stayed on a traditional approach to management, which closely monitored when, where, and how they completed work.

The research showed that employees who were free to change their schedules and work patterns reported getting almost an hour more sleep before work. They also had higher sleep quality, energy levels, self-reported health, and lower stress levels.

Employee autonomy is critical for learning

We are living in an age of such rapid change that researchers at Oxford University are predicting that almost half of the jobs we have today are at risk of being replaced by technology in the next 10 to 20 years. Constant learning and reskilling is critical for any employees – and companies – that want to stay competitive and relevant.

The importance of autonomy in education has garnered so much attention in the past decade that an entire field of research, “Learner autonomy”, has emerged to study and promote it. However, most of us don’t need academic research to know that people are naturally curious, have a desire to understand their environment, and love learning new things. We know that throwing people in the deep end (and standing on the sidelines giving a bit of instruction) is normally one of the most efficient ways of getting them to learn a new skill. Autonomy at work also has an important impact on learning outside of just the motivation to do it; because without freedom to deviate outside their normally rigid role boundaries most people will not take on new responsibilities (and therefore have the opportunity to learn new skills).

I hope this has convinced you of the importance of employee autonomy. At Peakon, autonomy is one of the core variables we use in our employee engagement models. If you’d like to know how well you are doing, and what you can do to improve it – drop me a line at dan@peakon.com. In the next few tutorials I will discuss how to actually improve autonomy in the workplace.

Further reading

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