What does it take to be happy at work? That’s the question we’re exploring in this three-part series. Last week, I wrote about purpose, next week I’ll write about the importance of relationships, and this week I’m talking about the importance of autonomy. What do I mean by autonomy? In this context, autonomy refers to the degree of control employees have over their ability to make decisions in their jobs.
Autonomy has become a particularly hot-button issue in the past few years. For many people, the pandemic served as a collective existential crisis, leading many of us to reconsider our priorities. As a result, most employees decided that they want greater control over many aspects of their work, including what they do and where, when, and how they do it—and they’re willing to walk away from organizations that fail to support their autonomy.
What autonomy is…
In our post-pandemic, hyper-connected world, it’s highly imprudent for organizations to ignore the allure of flexible working conditions. A recent survey found that 88% of employees want flexibility in the hours they work, and 87% want flexibility in where they work. Another survey of over 5000 knowledge workers, found that 59% of respondents said that flexibility is more important to them than salary or benefits.
Freedom from micromanagement
Does anything irritate high-achieving professionals more than being micromanaged by a controlling boss? Whether intended or not, micromanagement leads employees to feel untrusted, incompetent, and resentful. And it’s one of the top reasons why employees quit. As Steve Jobs said, “"It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people, and they tell us what to do.”
Ability to make decisions
Having to run every decision up the ladder is not only demoralizing, it’s highly inefficient. Sometimes the lack of decision-making authority is due to a micromanaging boss, but other times its due to bureaucratic red tape and onerous organizational policies.
What autonomy is not…
I want to be clear that autonomy is not the same as “going it alone”. Autonomy means that you have the ability to make decisions for yourself and that you can stand behind the choices you make. When you have autonomy, no one is compelling you to do something you disagree with (e.g., work inflexible hours, seek approval for every decision you want to make, etc.)
Next week we’re going to talk about the importance of relationships, and I want to stress that autonomy and teamwork/camaraderie are not in opposition to each other. In fact, the two are not even necessarily related to each other. You can have free will and still rely on others for help.
Why autonomy matters
If you have a toddler who insists on wearing the same pink tutu every day or a tween who asserts that “you’re not the boss of him”, then you already have a fairly good sense of how important self-determination is to human beings. However, prior to the 1970s, the prevailing belief was that providing external rewards was the key to controlling behavior and improving motivation. It’s an extension of a classical behaviorist concept: if you reward the rat with food, it will keep pressing the lever. Alas, humans tend to have significantly more complex inner lives than rats.
In their seminal book Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, two psychologists at the University of Rochester assert that: 1. Humans are inherently driven to grow and develop, and 2. Though external rewards are motivating to some extent, the most powerful driver for growth is intrinsic motivation.
For people to be intrinsically motivated, they need to have—among other conditions—autonomy. More specifically, they need to have a sense of independence and feel in-control of their choices and behavior. Put plainly, autonomy is a key component of motivation, and feeling motivated is a requisite for feeling engaged and satisfied at work.
The autonomy/competence connection
According to Deci and Ryan, autonomy and competence are separate and essential parts of intrinsic motivation, but to me, they are more intricately connected than that. In many ways, competence is a condition for autonomy. In order to act autonomously, we need to first believe that we have the ability and resources necessary to get the work done.
Relatedly, an employee’s supervisor (and senior organizational leadership) needs to believe that the employee is capable of independently making good decisions—and that having employees make their own decisions is positive, and not threatening. People don’t like being micromanaged because it feels condensing and infantilizing. When bosses demand that people work exclusively in person or refuse to let them deviate from standard 9-5 hours, most employees interpret this as “you don’t trust me to get my work done on my own terms”.
And this is why autonomy strikes such a nerve—because we interpret limited autonomy as lack of confidence in our competency. And it’s very difficult (if not impossible) to feel satisfied at work if we don’t believe that we are viewed as capable and valued.
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I'm considering starting my own law practice right now and am somewhat surprised that I cite having complete control over my practice as a primary reason. It is critical for my happiness at work. Thanks for this insightful piece, Jessica.
As an educator, I see the importance of autonomy for both teachers and students and it's holding a lot of American education back. Curriculum matters, but keeping teachers tied down by prescriptive curriculum keeps the teacher from growing and stunts student learning. Giving students autonomy to determine SOME of their learning actually helps them feel more like what they are learning matters and they are significantly more engaged. There is a balance, and we need to work to find that balance.