Experts have linked autonomy in the workplace to increased feelings of wellness and greater job satisfaction. One study even found that most people would rather have workplace autonomy than a promotion that comes along with power and influence over subordinates.
Your own thoughts and feelings can demonstrate why autonomy can be so appealing. Which of these scenarios is more appealing to you?
- Your boss asks you to pursue a goal and requests that you think about the goal and develop a rough plan for achievement.
- Your boss gives you step-by-step instructions for pursuing a goal; weekly check-ins will make sure you’re on track with all the steps.
Wouldn’t you agree that autonomy just feels good?
On the flipside of the coin, studies have found a lack of autonomy leads to stress and overall feelings of dissatisfaction and malaise at work. In fact, feeling “micromanaged” instead of feeling free to do work and make decisions, has been cited as one of the top reasons people leave jobs.
So we’ve established that autonomy carries workplace benefits, but now you might wonder how exactly one can achieve or cultivate autonomy in the workplace.
If you feel powerless at work, then you’re probably tired of being told to just “take charge!”
If your employees have told you they feel they lack a certain sense of independence, but you feel as though you’re doing all you can to support them, then you probably have no idea what to do.
Here’s your practical guide to achieving autonomy in the workplace.
Defining Autonomy in the Workplace
The early American revolutionary Patrick Henry once said, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”
When Henry said he wanted “liberty,” he mostly meant that he wanted more American autonomy from Great Britain; that was his idea of autonomy in the tumultuous days of American colonization.
But for a fifth-grader in Idaho, “autonomy” might look like choosing his own afternoon snack.
Words such as “autonomy,” “liberty,” and “freedom” are relative terms. They mean different things to different people.
So if you’re trying to cultivate workplace autonomy for yourself or for your employees, then you need to define autonomy in the context of your workplace.
Merriam Webster defines personal autonomy as “self-directing freedom and especially moral independence,” but we need a little more workplace nuance to develop a practical definition of autonomy.
GQR brings in Self-Determination Theory to further define workplace autonomy as “the need to be in charge of our experiences and actions.” They break autonomy down into two “pillars.”
- Pillar 1: Autonomy support – an individual feels supported, provided with flexibility and choice.
- Pillar 2: Autonomy fulfillment – an individual wants to work; work doesn’t feel compulsory or mandatory.
Creating Your Definition of Autonomy
Use these prompts to create your own definition of workplace autonomy.
- What do I (or my employees) need to feel supported?
- What makes me (or my employees) feel empowered to make decisions?
- To me, flexibility and choice at work is exemplified by these 3 scenarios _________________.
- I feel motivated to work when _________________.
Here’s an example of the completed prompt.
- What do I need to feel supported? I feel most supported when my managers and colleagues ask for my thoughts and opinions and listen to what I say.
- What makes me feel empowered to make decisions? I feel most empowered to make decisions when my managers accept my plans and check in occasionally to see how things are going.
- To me, flexibility and choice at work is exemplified by these 3 scenarios:
1. I can adjust my deadlines if I see fit.
2. I can select my own goals.
3. I can adjust my schedule when necessary.
- I feel motivated to work when I know what I do will matter, even in a few years.
Managers can cultivate autonomy support by…
[Tips adapted from GQR]
- Frequently asking for employees’ opinions and also acting on the feedback. (Pro tip: Ask for feedback until employees start providing it without prompts. You can even work employee feedback into your decision-making process.)
- Letting employees set their own deadlines. (Pro tip: Do not check in unless you have a valid reason to be concerned.)
- Letting employees set their own schedules.
- Letting employees design their own processes.
- Asking employees what they think department goals should be.
- Finding out how employees feel about their current levels of autonomy. Fierce, Inc. recommends asking the following questions:
Do you feel a sense of ownership and choice when it comes to 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?
- Letting go of mistakes and pinpointing the true, constructive takeaways in said mistakes.
- Inviting employees to assign you tasks and responsibilities.
Managers can cultivate autonomy fulfillment by…
- Offering plenty of recognition and appreciation.
- Connecting every employee duty and task to a larger goal or company mission.
- Asking employees about their deep dreams and goals.
- Offering opportunities for employees to develop and pick up new skills.
- Delegating new responsibilities and even asking for help on responsibilities management would usually handle.
- Asking employees how they like to work, including what environments and work setups they find most productive.
Employees hoping to take autonomy into their own hands can try a number of strategies to deepen their sense of workplace freedom. There’s more than one way to achieve autonomy, but simply talking to your manager about what you want will usually start your journey toward autonomy off on the right foot.
- Have a structured talk with your boss. One life coach recommends having a structured, strategic talk with your boss.
- Start with your specific ask. (“I want to work from home more often.” “I want more freedom in this project.” “I would like to handle this meeting by myself.”)
- Explain why you need it. (“I think running this meeting will help me build my confidence with this client and this project.”)
- Propose safeguards. Put yourself in your manager’s shoes and visualize some common concerns with letting go of control. Then propose a way to mitigate those concerns until you firmly establish your independence. (“I know you’re used to being involved in this meeting and that Company B is one of our top clients. To help ease your concerns, I’ll walk you through a detailed agenda at least two days before the meeting. Of course, I would love your feedback!”)
- Ask for more responsibilities. Fierce, Inc. says new tasks help build trust and also empower employees to make decisions. If your boss isn’t giving you new tasks, then speed up the process and ask for some.
- Offer your opinions and recommendations. Start carving out more autonomy for yourself and even cultivating a leadership “image” by offering your opinions and recommendations, whenever appropriate, even if no one has asked for them. This signals that you’re thinking about the big picture and that you’re hungry to take on a larger, more autonomous role.
- Prove that you can be autonomous. If you meet your deadlines, roll with the punches, come up with your own ideas, offer solutions, work independently, and ask for help when needed, then you’re demonstrating your preference for autonomy. If, on the other hand, you need to be reminded of deadlines and you need constant guidance, then you may be sending the message that you like, or require, extra management.
- Volunteer to help others. Seize opportunities to help out other teams and pick up new skills. This demonstrates a self-starting spirit, bolsters true autonomy, and also proves that you can self-motivate to complete your work; you do not have to be given assignments to do amazing work.
- Be an information sponge. Kforce recommends listening, identifying knowledge gaps, and asking work-relevant questions. They recommend first exhausting self-directed research avenues to find answers before taking questions to managers.
- Practice independent thinking. Lifehack recommends that anyone hoping to gain independence should practice independent thinking. Here’s their definition of independent thinking:
“Thinking independently means exploring your choices, weighing the options for yourself, seeking opinions from others (for reference, not approval), and making the call for yourself. Perhaps it might end up being a wrong call, but that does not mean that you should stop and give your power back to others.”
At work, this means distancing yourself from over-reliance on team support and validation and also getting used to owning your decisions. As a result, this also means letting go of the comfort and benefits of sharing responsibilities with others. This process can be daunting, but it will strengthen your independence and prove that you can be self reliant.
- Know what you want. What are your true professional goals? What do you hope to accomplish and why? Support your mission to become more autonomous by remembering why you want more autonomy. What will your autonomy help you do?
When you know what you want, or when you remind yourself what you want, your path to achieving your desires will become more clear.