Autonomy – Want A Sure Fire Way to Genuine Motivation?

Rules Can Be Like Prisons

Have you ever had a job where you felt trapped, not because you didn’t like the company or had no better options, but because there was no variety in the work, or you were micro-managed or everything was very procedure driven?


If so, you probably didn’t feel very motivated either. The frustration you feel in those situations is due to a lack of autonomy, which is the topic of today’s post.

If you’ve ever worked at a large company, and probably even if you haven’t, you’ve heard corporate buzzwords like “empowering our people”. You’ve probably also heard of company initiatives like “flex time” and “casual Fridays". Those initiatives are usually well-intentioned attempts to provide autonomy to their employees. Unfortunately, they are also often ineffective at achieving the desired result. Even the words “empowering our people” implies that management has all the power and they are being gracious by sharing some of it with the people doing the work.

So what does autonomy really mean, then? And why is it important?

The roots of motivation

In 1985, two professors at the University of Rochester, Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, published a model of human motivation called self-determination theory. Deci and Ryan explain that human beings have fundamental emotional and psychological needs that support mental well-being and inspire motivation. The degree to which those needs are met determines the level of motivation that you can sustain over long periods of time. In the context of self-determination theory, autonomy represents your ability to choose not only the things you do, but the way in which you do them.

The employee engagement and empowerment trend of the last 15-20 years is an attempt to meet this basic human need for autonomy. Unfortunately, many of the initiatives put in place by companies don’t provide true autonomy (or at least not very much of it). Let’s face it, does being on an employee concerns committee or being able to wear jeans to the office one day a week really make you feel like you have any more control over your work? It’s basically like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound.

A brave new world

Recently, some companies have taken a dramatic new approach to employee autonomy by abolishing work schedules altogether. This radical shift is championed by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson in their book Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It. They created the idea of what they call a results-only work environment (or ROWE). While there are many different variations of ROWE that companies have implemented, in their book, Ressler and Thompson describe an environment where there are no defined office hours each day. In fact, there's no requirement to go to the office at all. Employees are measured purely based on the results they produce, not on how many hours they spend to doing it, or where they get their work done. They are given wide latitude to determine how they accomplish their responsibilities. A ROWE is based on two fundamental truths: 1) people are happier and more motivated when they have a high level of autonomy and 2) the market rewards results, not activity or busy-ness.

Obviously, it’s not as simple to implement as I make it sound here. There are dozens of different situations, organizational structures and customer requirements that can make implementing a ROWE difficult, although usually not impossible. It’s also critical that employees are given very clear objectives, and that progress is measured on a regular basis. I’m not going to dive into those issues here, as that's not the point of this video. However, Ressler and Thompson do a very good job of addressing many of the common questions and objections in their book if you want to learn more about this concept.

Why it matters

So why is autonomy so effective at improving motivation? Everyone has different learning and working styles. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, which is why people become bored with and even resist environments where there are rules and processes for everything. I can attest to this from my own experience working in the corporate world. It is the same reason why people can’t stand being micromanaged, and why being an entrepreneur or freelancer is so appealing to some people.

On the flip side, when people are simply given an objective that they’re responsible for and the latitude to decide how they'll accomplish it, they are much happier. As an added bonus, they’ll often figure out an efficient way of doing it that's better than the “official” way that’s described in the procedure. The ROWE has had a positive impact for both employees and companies around the world, and the results speaks for themselves.

How do I get more of it?

So, you may be asking yourself how can you build autonomy into your own life, especially if you are one of those people who works at a company that doesn’t embrace employee autonomy. In his excellent book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Daniel Pink breaks autonomy down into four components that people seek to control: task, time, technique and team.

You may think you have limited ability to control these aspects of your work, and certainly some people will have less control than others. But often you have more influence than you think. For the task component, you can usually affect the types of things you work on, even if that means taking on additional duties that aren’t part of your core job function but that you find interesting. Most people have some additional capacity to take on extra work without creating a different problem. And your manager and co-workers are usually more than happy to unload some of their work onto you if you ask.

If you’re a hard-working, conscientious person, most managers will also give you some flexibility on both your work schedule (time) and the way you get your work done (technique). If you present a strong case for why you will be more effective (and happier) by making "a few small changes" to the way you work (and, by the way, you should frame it to your manager that way), most reasonable people will be willing to let you give it a try, even if only on a trial basis.

It goes without saying that you then have to deliver on your promise and prove that it can work. Even better, if you can frame the situation so that your manager can take credit for it as a productivity improvement for their team after you prove the concept, he or she will be more likely to buy in. As an added benefit, if it does work out and they start giving everyone on your team the same freedom, your relationships with them will improve because you were the one who took the initiative to get them more autonomy too. But it will never happen if you don’t ask.

Finally, the people you work with (team) has a significant impact on your satisfaction and motivation at work. The ability to influence this aspect of autonomy can prove more challenging than the others, but that doesn’t mean you have no options. If your job involves participation in short-term projects, often you can influence which projects you work on, either by simply volunteering or by letting your manager know your preferences. Some companies allow community-service type committees to meet during normal working hours. If you have an interest in any of those organizations, you could carve out a few hours each month to spend time with people and doing work that is more fulfilling. If your manager is the problem, it may require you to look for another position, either within the company or elsewhere, depending on how badly you want to change your situation.

Take the reins

The bottom line is, if you take responsibility for your situation and are proactive, you can improve one or more of the elements of your autonomy. It won’t happen overnight, but you’re not powerless. Ultimately, if you are able to make positive changes to your task, time, technique and team, you will experience a significant improvement in both your satisfaction and your motivation at work.