What is Employee Autonomy? Plus, Why It's Good for Business

Employee Autonomy

In his book “Drive,” Daniel Pink identifies three factors for high performance: mastery, purpose, and autonomy. Mastery is defined as having the skills and tools to get the work done to the company’s performance standard. Purpose is understanding why the work needs to be done. But the real key to high performance is the third factor: autonomy. 

What is employee autonomy?  

The definition of employee autonomy is having the ability to get the work done. Some people might think of it as empowerment or self-directedness or self-management. Regardless of the specific word being used, autonomy is about creating an environment where employees aren’t constrained.

Just because an employee has the skills and they understand their purpose, it doesn’t always mean they have the autonomy to get something done. An employee could be constrained by a policy or procedure. Or they could be constrained by management (i.e., micromanagement).

Another concept to consider when thinking about autonomy is flexibility. Keep in mind, autonomy and flexibility are two different things. Flexibility is the ability to be modified. For example, a company might say that employees must return to the office (RTO) three days a week BUT they have the flexibility to choose what days.

Autonomy is the ability to self-govern. Using the same RTO example, a company would say that employees have the autonomy to do their work where they believe is best. Autonomy includes an element of trust that employees will make the best decision given their work assignments. 

Autonomy includes an element of trust that employees will make the best decision.

The advantages (and challenges) of employee autonomy  

According to Arvind Malhotra, professor at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, people want to control when they work, where they work, and what they work on. Autonomy allows them to do that. The advantage of creating an autonomous work environment is that employees are engaged—they're doing work they're skilled at (mastery), they know why they’re doing the work (purpose), and the company has created an environment for them to thrive (autonomy).

Research from the University of Birmingham backs this up: The higher levels of autonomy, the greater the sense of job satisfaction and wellbeing. Better workplace autonomy leads to higher levels of employee engagement.  

The benefits of creating an engaged workforce are profound: Engaged workplaces experience 41% lower absenteeism. Employee engagement also increases productivity and profitability. A study from Gallup reported that highly engaged teams have 21% greater profitability.

The higher levels of autonomy, the greater the sense of job satisfaction and wellbeing.

Engaged workplaces experience less absenteeism and because employees are there “doing the work,” the organization experiences higher productivity and more profitability than their “disengaged” counterparts. It’s a benefit for both individuals and organizations.

But there can be a downside to employee autonomy: treating it like it’s flexibility. Ultimately, organizations want to give employees both flexibility and autonomy.

Three actions managers can take to create a more autonomous work environment  

The path to a more autonomous work environment starts with effective communication and training. Managers might feel that creating an autonomous work environment diminishes their value in the organization. The reality is that it does quite the opposite. Managers who create and support an autonomous work culture can develop their skills and work on special projects and more because they don’t have to worry about their department falling apart. Creating an autonomous work environment allows everyone to grow in their roles and prepares them for future opportunities.

But managers simply cannot say to employees, “Voila! You’re autonomous now,” and expect results. There are a few things they need to do:

  1. Make sure employees know how to do the work (mastery). And how the work connects to the organization (purpose). Managers and HR teams should regularly review orientation and onboarding programs to ensure they are relevant and thorough. In addition, managers must ensure that work responsibilities are connected to the company’s performance standards.
  2. Regularly provide feedback to employees about their performance. Now that an employee understands their work (purpose) and how to do it to the company standard (mastery), they should be recognized for excellent performance and corrected when appropriate. Managers can conduct regular one-on-one meetings with employees to provide that feedback.
  3. Give employees opportunities to practice autonomous decision making in a safe environment. This ties into the first point (make sure employees know the performance standard). Before delegating a task to an employee, give them an opportunity to practice. Maybe share with them a scenario currently happening in the department and ask them how they would handle it. Not only can this increase an employee’s confidence, but it can help the manager get comfortable with “letting go” and trusting an employee’s judgement. 

Three actions employees can take to encourage a more autonomous working environment    

An autonomous work environment does not entirely rest on management. Employees need to be prepared to do their part.

  1. Learn the principles of self-management. Be prepared to share these qualities with management. It’s not unreasonable for managers to ask employees, “What do you need to be successful?” Employees should be prepared to answer those questions. And it might sound easy, but it’s not. It takes an incredible amount of personal searching to become self-managing. Employees can start by asking themselves: What does it take for me to be my most productive self? What conditions do not make me productive?
  2. Identify a problem-solving model that works for you. There will always be a problem—some big and some small—that needs to be worked through. Being able to work through a problem could also help employees deal with interpersonal conflict. In an autonomous work environment, managers should not be spending their time wearing the metaphorical “striped shirt” and breaking up employee conflicts. Employees need to make efforts to work out these situations on their own.
  3. Figure out where you'd like to grow. The final aspect of self-management that employees should know about themselves is how and what they’d like to learn. While it’s not advisable to learn everything the same way, employees should be able to explain to their manager the topics and skills they both need and want to learn as well as the best way for them to learn them.

The bottom line: Employee autonomy is essential and beneficial for business

Organizations do not have the resources to manage every little detail in their operation, nor do they want to. Having autonomous, well-trained employees sets your organization ahead of the competition: Employees can do their best work. Managers can spend their time coaching and supporting their teams (rather than micromanaging their employees). When you create an autonomous environment, everyone wins.  

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