Employee engagement

The Case for Employee Autonomy

George Dickson
August 24, 2019
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Robots are the best employees.

They never bicker, they stay on task indefinitely, and won't demand a corner office. They don't need paychecks, food, sunlight, breaks, or even air to do their job effectively.

They'll also never quit. Employee retention is really easy with robots.

There's just one (very big) problem: Robots can only complete very specialized tasks using programmed methods.

Human employees may require food, air, and paychecks, but they have a distinct advantage over robots: autonomy.

The exact thing that makes human resources challenging makes it worthwhile.

Unfortunately, there are many company cultures that fail to embrace that autonomy. Employees aren't the only ones who benefit from increased autonomy and empowerment — entire organizations benefit. It's a massive oversight to deny employee autonomy. I know that's a big statement, but stay with me:

When you embrace autonomy in your workforce, you gain some key advantages:


Have you ever asked why something was done a certain way, then heard this one?

"We've always done it this way."

That's all well and good for things like old family traditions and shoe tying, but I can't think of six words that more succinctly describe inefficiency in business. Human creativity is limitless. Don't stifle it; leverage it.

Employees who are given more control over how they approach their work often find a better way to do it. So, how do we empower employees?


Ask yourself: how important is it to your organization's mission to have a butt in a seat?

Is attendance more important than reaching your business objectives as efficiently as possible? Some employees do their best work first thing in the morning and some do their best at midnight. Some work most effectively in an office chair, but others are more effective in their living room or a coffee shop.

Modern communication and collaboration tools altered the business landscape forever. It's no longer necessary to have everyone in the same room, or even the same time zone, to get work done.

There are many successful companies with employees distributed all across the globe. It's much easier to recruit top talent when you're not competing against their home, their family, and their friends.

Giving employees autonomy over when and where they do their work can also improve their overall satisfaction with the work environment, which leads to better retention rates.

Leading an autonomous team

Whether your team is centrally located or distributed, effective leadership of an autonomous team is incredibly rewarding.

You can benefit from employee autonomy without jumping straight into the deep end by shifting your leadership mentality from controlling motivation to autonomous motivation.

The State University of New York offers a great explanation of autonomous motivation and its benefits in "Supporting Employee Autonomy for Better Performance":

"Autonomous motivation is the type of motivation whereby an individual feels that they are working because of their own will and enjoyment. They 'personally own' their motivation to complete a task."

You can work to encourage and inspire an atmosphere of autonomous motivation by playing to the individual strengths of your employees, relying less on controlling language, providing solid rationales to explain policies.

When policies do clash with employee interests or ideologies, acknowledge that. Don't just say, "this is the way it is, and there's nothing more to it." Explain why something is the way it is so that employees can see the value in it. If you can't express the value of a policy effectively, it might be time to reconsider it anyway.

Empowering employees to recognize and reward the contributions of their colleagues is another great way to provide autonomy in your workforce. You'll learn more about your team, what they truly value, and where their strengths lie. Bonusly is a great tool for facilitating recognition and you can implement it in minutes.

No matter how you choose to start implementing employee autonomy into your company culture, the important part is getting started. Give your employees autonomy and they'll show you the benefits.

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