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Autonomy at work is important (now more than ever)

December 3, 2021 - 19 min read


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What is autonomy in the workplace?

How does workplace autonomy differ from personal autonomy?

Why is autonomy in the workplace important?

How to encourage autonomy at work

Examples of autonomy at work

No one likes to be micromanaged at work. Having a manager or supervisor constantly looking over your shoulder is frustrating. It also damages leadership trust in the workplace.

That’s why autonomy at work is so important.

Autonomy in the workplace means giving employees the freedom to work in a way that suits them. With autonomy at work, employees get to decide how and when their work should be done.

Workplace autonomy will look different depending on your organization. But done correctly, it can benefit your employees and wider company culture in more ways than one.

Let’s explore how leaders can encourage autonomy at work and reap the rewards.

What is autonomy in the workplace?

Understanding workplace autonomy is the first step in implementing it. 

If employees are capable of getting the job done without micromanagement, why impose rules? Sometimes rules stifle creative thinking and create unneeded performance pressure

If giving freedom sounds potentially chaotic, let’s look at the situation from a different angle. 

Increased workplace autonomy embraces the concept that not everyone's the same. Each member of a team may have a different approach, but that approach isn’t necessarily invalid. Trust is given to each employee based on the notion that they will get the job done. 

Importantly, autonomy may be an effective solution to a lack of workplace engagement. A workforce that’s trusted and allowed to approach tasks their own way is more likely to be engaged.


How does workplace autonomy differ from personal autonomy?

What is personal autonomy, and how is it different from workplace autonomy?

If we define personal autonomy, we are talking about actions outside the workplace. Specifically, the freedom to make choices in your personal life to achieve your personal goals

This freedom will have its own consequences. The difference is that in your personal life, you only have yourself to answer to. It is the expected arrangement of living in a society and the contract everyone gets.

Workplace autonomy is something separate from the personal autonomy definition. Although it is similar in that it allows individuals to make their own decisions, job autonomy is defined by working toward a set goal

How employees reach that goal may be open. But should the result not be satisfactory, the employee won't just be answering to themselves. They will also have to answer to their workplace team they have let down.

Autonomy at work is freedom within the confines of a greater company goal. Achieving the goal is the overarching framework.

Why is autonomy in the workplace important?

Encouraging autonomy in the workplace has several benefits. The act of putting faith in a team can change a business atmosphere, replacing a sense of hierarchy with one of trust. 

A workforce feels less pressured when given autonomy and, as a result, more confident. This, in turn, has the following far-reaching positive benefits.

1. Increases job satisfaction

Some companies struggle to increase job satisfaction because they take the wrong approach. They often overlook removing strict predetermined rules. The simple act of granting employees autonomy increases job satisfaction

A workforce that operates at their own pace and by their own rules is more likely to feel satisfied. Because the results of hard work are a case of personal achievement, every task is a reason to feel fulfilled.

2. Creates employee engagement and motivation

Workplace engagement and work motivation naturally increase when team members have to make their own decisions. Learning a set of strict rules and sticking to them is a tedious way to work. This is even more true when employees are punished for deviating from the rules.

In contrast, tackling tasks with freedom is invigorating. It allows for creativity in the workplace and promotes increased self-advocacy from employees.

Employees that are trusted by their leaders strive to deliver above expectations. They will often want to prove that they deserve the trust they have been granted. This way, workplace engagement is achieved, and by extension, employee job satisfaction increases.

3. Improves employee retention

Increased job autonomy results in happier employees. Happy employees do not feel the need to seek out other work. Job turnover is, therefore, significantly reduced, saving time and effort in recruitment and onboarding.

High employee retention rates also minimize workplace disruptions. A team that has worked together extensively is likely to be more efficient. Having to introduce new employees can reduce that established efficiency, at least for the time being.

4. Encourages creativity and innovation

Free thinking people come up with unique and creative solutions. In turn, this gives rise to innovation.

Innovation is what a workplace needs to keep evolving and developing. Without autonomy in the workplace, an organization may become stagnant. This is especially true when employees are discouraged from brainstorming new ideas and thinking outside the box.

As technology evolves, so do businesses if they want to keep up and stay relevant. Workplace evolution cannot happen when a workplace atmosphere is based on conformity. 

5. Builds a culture of trust

A workforce based around trust works efficiently, thereby boosting productivity. When employees understand that they’re trusted to achieve tasks, that same trust is extended back to leaders. The resulting workplace culture of mutual trust is a setting for true innovation.

When leaders are trusted, internal conflict decreases, and, by extension, job happiness increases. Trusted leaders are more approachable, and conflict resolution becomes achievable.

6. Boosts productivity

An employee that is allowed autonomy is self-motivated, inspired to achieve, and more likely to engage with work. The inevitable result is a boost in productivity. 

Self-aware, free-thinking employees are setting out to achieve professional goals their own way. And achieving these goals is pushing the business forward as a whole.

7. Employees feel valued

Little makes an employee feel as valued as having freedom. When goals are achieved via personal thinking and innovation, successful results mean praise. Since it was their solution that produced results, they are deserving of recognition and credit.

By extension, this helps to create a feeling of belonging. Employees allowed individuality feel free to express themselves. This allows them to find a place in the workforce. And in turn, group dynamics are allowed to form naturally.

8. Develops leadership qualities in employees

When employees have autonomy in the workplace, they develop self-reliance and resilience. These are two of many important leadership skills

Since independent thought is synonymous with problem-solving, a workplace based on autonomy is a perfect work environment for building leaders.

9. Promotes skill development

There is no better environment for skill development than one where people have freedom. 

When creativity is allowed, innovation is inevitable. But innovative solutions often require new skills. And with increased responsibility, employees feel encouraged to expand their skill set. The result is a workforce that strives to improve itself based on personal goals.

How to encourage autonomy at work

Understanding what autonomy in the workplace is and encouraging it are two different things. 

In order to create an autonomous workplace, there are a few things to take into account. You should also keep in mind that easing into a new workplace framework may take time. 

1. Support a growth mindset

Supporting a growth mindset is an essential first step. A growth mindset specifies that skill and intelligence are something that can be developed. Fixed mindsets, by contrast, are fixed in a belief that skill and intelligence are inherent, and people cannot develop them.

An employee encouraged into a growth mindset is positioned to develop themselves and will strive to move beyond where they are today. This is important for a number of reasons, specifically where skill development is concerned.

2. Build a culture of trust

Building a culture of trust will take time. The first steps are delegating tasks to employees and giving them the freedom to find their own path to success. The more tasks are delegated over time, the quicker a sense of workforce trust will develop.

3. Communicate effectively

Clear and effective communication is essential. Autonomy in the workplace is about allowing freedom, but a clear goal is a requirement in this arrangement. Remember that autonomy can apply to self-managed teams and self-managed individuals. But in both cases, clarity is necessary. 

A person can’t make smart decisions if they are unsure about the task they’re assigned. A team may end up in conflict if members are uncertain about what they are trying to achieve. 

In both cases, it is the responsibility of the leader to clarify what the task is. Once free-thinking teams and individuals are clear about the direction, they can move forward confidently.

4. Provide support and advice where needed

A good leader understands when it is time to step in and provide support. They recognize when too much autonomy leads to disorganization and aim to prevent this.

Autonomy doesn’t mean that outside leadership isn’t required, but that it depends on the situation. If a team or an individual stalls, outside assistance is fine. A leader can monitor progress without interfering and step in when necessary.

If a leader does step in, it should not be to take control. It should be to offer guidance and help set the project back on track. Even when mistakes are made, failures should be seen as an opportunity for learning and growth. 

Once the project is back on track, the leader can step back and again allow autonomy. 

5. Set goals and benchmarks

Every project, no matter how big or small, should have goals and benchmarks. A task is more manageable when there are clear points of progress acting as a guide to steer momentum. If it is clear where a project is going, deciding on how to get there is far simpler. 

It is important for individuals and teams to decide their own goals, though a leader can be present to verify the decision. But goals are also flexible. As a project evolves, it may be necessary to adjust the original path. This is a natural part of moving toward success.

Benchmarks are as important as goals. Once progress is made, benchmarks for performance are naturally created.

These benchmarks should be recorded and referred back to for all future projects. Employees that understand their own potential will strive to achieve that same result or improve on it.

6. Acknowledge good work

Once autonomy is allowed, success needs acknowledgment. Giving credit for good work reinforces that free thinking is not only allowed but rewarded. 

Employees that receive acknowledgment for results understand what they can achieve and appreciate that their methods give results.

7. Hire the right people

It is important to understand that not everyone is happy with autonomy in the workplace. Many have developed in a culture of rules and are more comfortable working in those conditions. Hiring those most comfortable with an autonomous environment is key to building the desired workforce.

8. Allow for mistakes

Task delegation must be based around responsibility — not punishment. If mistakes are made, a person should not fear blame. Instead, mistakes should be approached as an opportunity to learn and used as a chance to improve future performance.

If blame and punishment are assigned for mistakes, this will only discourage future free-thinking and creativity.

9. Support professional development

Supporting employee development is mutually beneficial. Employees encouraged to recognize their own weaknesses and develop their own skills have a clear career path forward. This benefits the company as a whole, given that a more skilled workforce increases productivity.

Examples of autonomy at work

Here are some clear examples of job autonomy put into practice in the workplace.

1. Letting employees set their own schedule

The most obvious example of functional autonomy is employees that are allowed to create their own work schedules. This demonstrates trust, freedom to make decisions, and individuality.

2. Letting employees set deadlines

Deadlines are important, but they don’t always have to be set by leaders. An employee that understands the importance of a task and can decide on their own deadline is empowered. They are taking responsibility on their own shoulders and must live up to a goal they have established. 

If the deadline is missed, it is the responsibility of the person who decided the time frame.

3. Letting employees design their own processes

After tasks and goals are established, an employee should design their own process to success. They can approach the challenge in whatever fashion they want and are free to think as creatively as they choose.

But an established process is not final. An autonomous employee can evolve and change their processes and practices as necessary. They are aware that they are refining their own personal process in order to better deliver the outcomes that matter to the team and organization.

4. Asking for input on organizational goals

A leader asking for workforce input helps establish trust and allows employees to voice concerns. Rather than a predetermined set of goals getting laid out, goals should get established by the employees tasked with achieving them.

5. Letting employees decide where to work

A leader demanding that a workforce come into an office, on principle, is forcing an old-school way of thinking. Working from home is more viable than it has ever been.

Some employees may feel more comfortable working from home and should have the option to do so if possible in their role. But the choice to work in the office should be open to employees who prefer that environment. 

In both cases, employees should have the freedom to make their own choices.

6. Letting employees choose their benefits

Letting employees choose their own job benefits is putting the power in their hands. Not everyone appreciates the same benefits. So, lumping an entire workforce into the same employment plan is not always the best strategy. 

Nothing satisfies a person more than the freedom to pick an employee benefit plan that suits their needs.

Autonomy in the workplace empowers employees

The landscape of corporations is changing, with the focus shifting toward more autonomous employment. That doesn't mean a free-for-all — employees still need guidance and guardrails. Indeed, the role of the manager — as guide and coach — is more important than ever.

Although it is a change that can take time to implement, the positive effects of increased autonomy in the workplace are overwhelming. 

Empowered employees are happier, and happy employees are productive and motivated. Empowerment helps employees and their managers grow and develop faster, professionally and personally.

A BetterUp coach can help with the transition and guide your company and employees into a new era of empowerment. Get the power of expert coaching today and start transforming your workforce into a better, more productive version of itself.

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Published December 3, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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