Autonomy in the office

I’ve been seeing a lot of blogs and articles about autonomy lately. I’m not sure if this is the buzz word of 2012 or what, but it is an often overlooked part of a business’ success. For those who aren’t quite sure what “autonomy” means, it’s basically doing the opposite of micro-managing. Allowing your employees to work and find their way to do things best. The only universal motivators across cultures are autonomy, variety, and intrinsic value (Peterson & Ruiz-Quintanilla, 2006) so obviously this is a key to an organization’s success.

An often overlooked part of autonomy, an over-compensation perhaps, is allowing too much autonomy. What managers need to realize is there’s a difference between autonomy and passivity. You still need to provide a direction to the employee, an objective for output. The autonomy comes from the employee using their own style to get there. This is incredibly important! I can’t overstate this enough. Often times there is little importance in the process of how things get done. Allowing your employees to figure out what works for them to get the job done is the important thing.

Let’s face it, the important part of business is the bottom line. What difference does it really make how you get there (obviously ethics and legalities are important, but the process and job descriptions are not)? Playford, Dawson, Limbert, Smith, Ward, and Wells (2000) found that participation in one’s own goal setting and program for achieving those goals improved the performance of individuals.  By allowing the managers to take part in their own goal setting and implementation will lead to higher performance. Autonomy of getting to the end goal, in other words, allows the managers and employees to find their own path. Do you like being told exactly what and how to do something? Probably not. Some structure and feedback are important, but leaving the employee some freedom and trust to get the job done that they’ve been hired for goes a long long way.


Peterson, M.F., & Ruiz-Quintanilla, S.A. (2003). Cultural socialization as a source of intrinsic work motivation. Group & Organization Management, 28(2), 188-216. DOI: 10.1177/1059601103251228.

Playford, E.D., Dawson, L., Limbert, V., Smith, M., Ward, C.D., & Wells, R. (2000). Goal-setting in rehabilitation: report of a workshop to explore professionals’ perceptions of goal-setting. Clinical Rehabilitation, 14(5), 491-496. DOI: 10.1191/0269215500cr343oa.


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