Consistent occupational research investigating workplace culture identifies that employees with higher levels of autonomy at work experience higher levels of job satisfaction. There is also a significant relationship between workplace autonomy and positive effects on overall wellbeing.

Author Daniel Pink describes autonomy as “having some control over the work you do, when you do it, how you do it and who you do it with”. Guided by the psychological research, we would further clarify that it’s our perception of control that matters most (“I believe I have some control”), rather than how much control we get to act on every day.

One of the most influential benefits of autonomy is that it drives up experiences of intrinsic motivation, in turn increasing our desire to do something for its own sake. When we are engaged in activities that are intrinsically motivating, this diminishes the tendency to rely on external rewards, such as money or feedback, to keep up our momentum. There is also a strong relationship between intrinsic motivation, reward and enhanced wellbeing. Projects, goals and tasks that we set ourselves are more likely to create intrinsic motivation.

As a people leader, what can you do to create a sense of autonomy for your people? At its simplest, you want to provide as much choice or as many options as you can, even when you are operating under parameters that can’t shift.

  1. Explain the rationale for work you request – why it’s important and how it fits into the broader picture of important projects, time frames and strategy. You can also talk with each team member about their role and any tweaks that are possible – “How can we make this particular piece of work more intrinsically motivating for you?”
  2. Consult with your team about how they will achieve the goal or complete the work – give options and choices as much as you can and encourage them to be innovative. Perhaps the team will work best under a “sprint” mindset – “Let’s nail this and as quickly as we can!” – or would they prefer a “break it down” approach and tackle pieces a little at a time?
  3. Where you or your team have limited control over both the goal and the method for reaching it, try creating the feeling of choice by inviting your employees to make decisions about more peripheral aspects of the task.  For example, if your employees have to attend weekly team meetings to improve communication and collaboration (with both the goals and method for reaching them predetermined), you might suggest team members take turns deciding what the topic of the meeting will be each week, or where the meeting will be or even what kind of lunch will be ordered in.  Studies show that these more peripheral decisions create a feeling of choice, even when the choices aren’t particularly meaningful or relevant to the goal itself.
  4. Support flexibility and demonstrate trust – negotiate with your team about when and how work is done. Try these or similar questions:
    • How do you want your work day to look?
    • What environment allows you to work most effectively?
  5. Initiate and encourage discussions about the current level of autonomy:
    • What sense of ownership and choice do you feel you have with your work?
    • Do you feel empowered in your schedule, and comfortable with the pace at which you’re able to work?
    • Do you feel there’s a mutual sense of trust between colleagues?

Open and trusting conversations will open up the possibility for more autonomy. Explore how they’re feeling about the current level of autonomy and discuss what changes can be made together that could improve it.