Autonomy: A basic need in the workplace

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In the 1970s, American psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan developed the Self-Determination Theory, which argues that human beings must satisfy three basic needs to achieve maximum engagement and performance: competence, relatedness and autonomy. In their opinion, autonomy is the most important of the three.

In our day-to-day lives, we take responsibility for most of our choices. So why should someone who is free in every other context need to have their choices validated or get one or more reporting levels involved as soon as they’re at work? Why would an ordinary citizen lose their ability to complete a project on their own when they assume the role of an employee?

Shattering preconceptions

Some beliefs about working life are difficult to challenge. Managers and executives often say things like, “Employees are lazy.” Or, “People do the bare minimum. You always need to push and reward them.” Or, “If they work from home, they’ll get less done.” 

Employees also have beliefs that are just as difficult to change, like, “I can’t do that. My boss would never let me.”

Several studies, including the ones Daniel Pink mentions in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, have shown that the results of giving employees more autonomy contradict these assumptions. 

In general, when employees are more autonomous:

  • Satisfaction increases and stress decreases.
  • Loyalty to the company increases and the turnover rate decreases.
  • Performance and productivity increase.

A conclusive experiment at Best Buy

In the early 2000s, Best Buy was struggling with a high turnover rate and declining productivity. But in 2003, human resource managers Carli Ressler and Jody Thompson implemented a ROWE (results-only work environment) in the company. In three years, resignations dropped from 22% to 2%, and productivity rose 35%. The principle is simple: employees decide how, when and where they work. Managers guide them by giving them the tools they need. In a ROWE, employees receive clear instructions on what is expected of them, and coaching as needed to achieve the desired results.  

With this approach, all that matters is manager support, when required, and the expected results. Employees no longer need to obtain several approvals at every step of the work process. An exception applies when a project is risky. In that situation, the validation steps are specified from the outset and explained to those involved.  

Other examples: Google and 3M 

In other companies, like Google and 3M, employees can spend up to 20% of their time on whatever project they want. They can explore and solve problems that are not part of their usual tasks. Employees have total autonomy over what they’re doing, as well as how, where, when and with whom they’re doing it. 

3M Post-it notes, Google Translate and Gmail are just a few notable innovations stemming from this initiative.

Letting employees choose their projects one day a week may seem like a huge investment. However, the savings that come from a reduced turnover rate and fewer sick days, and the increased creativity and productivity provide an excellent return. 

Such a culture change cannot happen without unwavering support from influential leaders. An adaptation period is also necessary during implementation. Whatever your professional context and environment, it’s almost always possible to give employees a bit more freedom. This autonomy is necessary for their wellbeing and will have positive effects throughout the organization.

Take action!

Where do you want to start? You have many options, including when, where, how, with whom and on what employees will work more autonomously, and how many approvals are necessary for various types of projects. You can also consider a combined approach; the choice is yours.

Further reading: 

About the author

Danielle Michaud, PCC, MBA, CPA, CGA is an ICF Accredited Coach, trainer and facilitator. She has more than 20 years of management experience in various environments and contexts. She holds the Agile Coach and NOVA Profile certifications (profile on leadership style and motivations), and is passionate about new organizational forms, such as the liberated company.

Further reading