The power of autonomy at work

Role of business

Sarah Johnson

23 February 2015

Companies like Google and Facebook are famous for their innovative workspaces which aim to inspire creativity. In return they expect greater levels of productivity from their employees – and generally they get it.

But is it solely a person’s environment that affects productivity? Are there other factors at play? Does autonomy also have something to do with it? Since graduating, I’ve worked in a number of different businesses, all with a different ethos and attitude. Some very positive, others less so. My favourite jobs have been the ones where I was allowed to try new things and learn from my mistakes. I didn’t get paid any extra if I succeeded in my task, only the satisfaction of a job well done and the knowledge that I’d learned something useful.

For economists, the key to a successful business with productive workers is incentives. Financial incentives to be precise. They argue that human beings are profit-maximisers – we will work harder and produce better ‘stuff’ if a high enough financial reward is dangled in front of us. But in reality this is not always true. We focus so much on the ‘carrot’ that we forget to look at the bigger picture. We get tunnel vision. If you try to reward people financially for tasks that require conceptual and creative thinking, people will generally under-perform.

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There’s no denying that environment is a contributing factor to employees’ happiness. Successful businesses like Google and Innocent are a testament to that. Even in my placement in a school, I have seen first-hand how the environment can affect the work ethic of both the teachers and the students.

But there’s one factor that has been proven to produce transformational results and happier employees: autonomy. Autonomy taps into people’s intrinsic motivations, the desire to do something for its own sake. Once you’ve got hold of those you’re onto a winner. To borrow an example from Dan Pink – a leading thinker on what motivates people – when people are given time to be purely creative and follow their own passions, more interesting and innovative ideas are produced. Many individuals thrive on this level of trust in their abilities.

Clearly autonomy is an applicable idea in many situations, but what about businesses where there has to be a level of supervision? Where can management and employee autonomy meet? One of my most rewarding jobs was redesigning the archiving system for a company with high standards and fixed operating procedures. This situation could have been very limiting: there were many pre-determined constraints and the overall target was already set. But I had autonomy over how I met the prescribed goal. I was allowed (and trusted) to use my discretion and experience.

Looking back now, it was being trusted that really hit my intrinsic motivations. I felt a need to repay that trust by creating the best service I possibly could, to prove that they were right to give me that level of autonomy. The ability and space to set my own path made me more willing to deliver to a high standard.

Autonomy, while at times rejected because people cannot see how it can fit within a structure, is also the key to creative and conceptual thinking. By trusting in someone to find their own way towards solving an issue – or even the freedom to identify a problem and find the fix – can lead to improved levels of productivity, morale and open up issues to higher realms of creativity.