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Want to Improve Performance and Engagement? Here’s Why Autonomy is Essential

What comes to mind when you think of autonomy? 

You might imagine engaging in solo work with your headphones on, focused, and free of distractions. Perhaps you imagine yourself sitting in a coffee shop or bundled up under the blankets at home with a cup of hot cocoa.

While there might be some truth to this idea of autonomy, there's a lot more to it. For starters, it's less about how our work day looks at face value or how often we interact with others—it's more about ownership, accountability, trust relative to our work, and having a sense of control over how we use our time. In a larger context, autonomy creates a sense of empowerment. The ability to pursue our preferences helps support our sense of autonomy, so how we create it in our own lives tends to vary from person to person.

Part of being an effective leader is exploring how the areas of performance and engagement can be strengthened—and autonomy is a major player.

To dive into this idea, we have to consider human motivation—when we feel inspired, we feel motivated, which leads us to fully engage in our work and perform at our best. Daniel Pink, author of Drive, has pinpointed three elements necessary for generating the deepest levels of motivation within ourselves: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In his words, "Control leads to compliance—autonomy leads to engagement."

And it's really important. Let's look at some data that supports just how much autonomy matters in the workplace…

Researchers from the UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM revealed that if you have flexible working hours or the ability to work at your own pace (ahem, autonomy), you're likely to have higher job satisfaction and higher overall well-being than other professionals who don't. In other words, we need it to achieve satisfaction in our careers. The study also revealed that 90% of people in managerial positions reported high levels of autonomy, while over half of all low-skilled employees reported having no autonomy at all. Management is not the only level with an organization that deserves autonomy. Leadership needs to support and promote empowerment and freedom of choice across all levels within their organization.

Published in the journal PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY BULLETIN, "gaining autonomy quenches the desire for power," and people would rather work in a non-managerial, autonomous position that grants self-empowerment than take a promotion offering power over others. People are seeking control over their own lives, and appear to have little desire to control the lives of others. This should serve as a wake-up call to leadership—the possibility of a promotion may not be a top motivator for employees, but they may be seeking one if they think it will grant them more autonomy.

In order to achieve more autonomy, some individuals choose to leave their organizations, start solo businesses, and "be their own boss." But fortunately, leaving our organizations isn't necessarily required in order to create it.

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Here are a handful of effective ways you can increase a sense of autonomy within your team and organization.

1. Respect time boundaries.

Having a sense of individual power over how time at work is arranged can increase autonomy. Provide employees with the opportunity to work independently and focus on tasks or projects without interruption. Respect your own time and the time of others—set boundaries, and respect theirs.

Collaboration is important for engagement and results, but meetings for the sake of meetings can disrupt workflow and aren't the best use of time for anyone involved. For pre-scheduled meetings, make sure to set an intention and provide attendees with an agenda beforehand, and ask for meeting consent before scheduling. Ask yourself where you are wanting collaboration from your team so you can cut to the chase in meetings and focus on the most important issue(s) at hand. And, if needed, use today's robust technology to make accommodations for remote workers.

2. Provide trust and flexibility.

Simply put, life happens. Between the needs of family, our own needs, doctor appointments, and personal preferences, strict expectations don't work for everyone and when they're too strict, it can negatively impact autonomy. Pose questions to your team:

  • How do you want your work day to look?
  • What environment allows you to work most effectively?

If objectives are clear, flexibility can be beneficial for both individuals and results within your organization. Trust that objectives will be met, and if they aren't, commit to following up with the conversations that need to happen in order to address the issue.

3. Delegate new responsibilities.

Delegating new tasks can increase autonomy for an employee by empowering them to make decisions. Not only does this communicate your own trust in their ability, but it also provides them with an opportunity to strengthen their own self-trust. Effective delegation will allow employees to develop personally and professionally, and provides them with opportunities to take action in new ways.

4. Have conversations about the current level of autonomy in your organization.

If you're in a leadership role, have conversations with the people you work with most closely. Ask your team:

  • Do you feel a sense of ownership and choice when it comes to your work?
  • Do you feel empowered in your schedule, and comfortable with the pace at which you're able to work?
  • Do you feel there's a mutual sense of trust between colleagues?

If the answer is no to any of these questions, a conversation can open up the possibility for more autonomy. Explore how they're feeling about the current level of autonomy and discuss what changes can be made together that could improve it.

If you're an individual contributor and feel that your current work environment isn't supportive of autonomy, don't let it slide. Have a conversation with your manager or supervisor. Approaching someone in a leadership role about your desire for more autonomy can be daunting, but the cost of not having the conversation is too great.

Supporting autonomy for the people we work with is an important part of strengthening our relationships, and the state of our relationships largely impacts business ROI. Download our whitepaper The ROI of Skillful Conversation: Relationship Advice for Measurable Business Results for more insight.


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