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Embracing Autonomy: A Key to Engagement and Wellbeing at Work

A starling in flight above the words "Starling on work and life"

We all want to feel in control at work and when we don’t it can impact our performance and wellbeing. In fact, a perceived lack of control is one of six key factors that can lead to burnout. But being in control doesn’t mean that we need to be the boss. It means we need autonomy.


Autonomy is the power to shape our work environment and choices. It is a cornerstone for intrinsic motivation and job satisfaction. Unfortunately, many of us don’t feel like we have that power. That’s not entirely surprising when you consider that many modern workplace practices and mindsets are rooted in historical perspectives that viewed employees as cogs in a wheel. But it’s time to reframe our relationship with work, because the status quo isn’t cutting it—our happiness and health depend on it.


What is Autonomy?

In a world where everyone is talking about flexible work policies, hybrid work, and return-to-office trends, it’s worth being clear about what we mean by autonomy. While it certainly includes having the flexibility to work at a location of our choice, it also encompasses so much more. Autonomy can include being able to make decisions, set boundaries, contribute ideas, operate without micromanagement, and have a say in assignments. Ultimately, it’s about feeling trusted and respected in your role.


In the 1980s, psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci introduced Self-determination Theory—a theory of motivation positing that people are more intrinsically motivated when they feel autonomous, competent, and related. And we should all want to be more intrinsically motivated, because it makes us more likely to engage, persist, and succeed at work and in life. 


Fast forward twenty years to when Daniel Pink uses self-determination theory as the backbone for Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pink writes, “People need autonomy over task (what they do), time (when they do it), team (who they do it with), and technique (how they do it).” He also shares that companies that provide this kind of autonomy outperform the competition. So maybe there’s something to this autonomy business.


Support for autonomy is prolific and the benefits are bountiful. Employees who feel autonomous are more satisfied with their jobs, report better mental health, and are more productive. They are more likely to stay in their jobs, build core leadership skills, and come up with creative solutions. Autonomy, it seems, is a key ingredient to success.


So if autonomy is seemingly such a no-brainer, why aren’t we all doing it?


Why is Autonomy so Hard?

For starters, history has a long tail.


As it emerged, the modern workplace was heavily influenced by industrial-era philosophies in which efficiency and standardization were paramount. The Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries ushered in a shift in how Americans worked. Factories emerged to feed the growing need for consumer goods and, as they did, people began to work for others as “employees” in the modern sense of the word. 


Factory lines broke work down into component pieces that needed to be executed identically every time in order to build quality products. There was no room for autonomy. As factories grew, more workers created a need for more managers. Management science emerged in the early 20th century, proposing we scientifically analyze work tasks to increase productivity. Needless to say, worker self-determination wasn’t top of mind yet.


Today, we’ve come far from the factories of old and into a new knowledge economy with multi-million dollar tech campuses equipped with everything from nap rooms and daycares to cafeterias and gyms. But vestiges of old mindsets remain. Many modern CEOs continue to put profit over people and prioritize results at any cost—declaring emphatically that they want their teams to take ownership of their work, while behaving in ways that make it clear they aren’t willing to cede control. Until we see a leadership cadre with a different value system, autonomy will continue to be a struggle.


Similarly, until we see managers equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to foster autonomy (under leaders that truly prioritize it), it will continue to be a challenge.


Building a Positive Team Culture with Autonomy

A culture of autonomy begins before a team is even assembled. It begins with recruiting and hiring. If you don’t attract the right people or have a process that gives you confidence in your hires, you’re hamstringing yourself from the get-go.



With a good process in place you can feel confident in who you have hired, and now it’s time to let them do the job you hired them to do. To create an environment of trust and respect, consider the following:


  • Seek input and feedback from your team. Be proactive and regular about it. Offer different channels for people to share and be sure to demonstrate that you really are open to feedback by responding graciously and acting on the input you receive. Make goal-setting and action-planning a collective activity.

  • Be clear on the decisions you expect your team to make. Avoid making those decisions for them, even if they ask you to. The more you put people in a position where they have to make their own decisions (because you won’t do it for them), the more they will do so. 

  • Get to know the humans on your team. What are their individual preferences, values, and styles? Put together and share personal user manuals. The more you know your people, the more opportunities for autonomy you can offer, and the more you can tie their work into a personal sense of purpose that will encourage them to act autonomously.

  • Share information regularly and transparently. There’s a reason why they say “knowledge is power”...because it is. Share that power. The more context and information your team has, the more they will be able to take ownership of their work and make good decisions.


How to be More Engaged at Work with Autonomy

As employees, we also don’t need to sit around and wait for permission to act with autonomy. At Starling, one of our favorite sayings is, “You have more agency than you think.” Regardless of what your manager is or is not doing, consider the following:


  • Seek out your own professional development opportunities. Whether it’s joining Starling or pursuing learning elsewhere, don’t wait for your employer to hand you what you need. Be proactive in setting development goals and finding solutions that will help you meet them. Many employers offer a professional development stipend—make use of it. Knowledge (and skills) are power.

  • Push the envelope on decision-making. Before going to your manager with decisions, ask yourself what would happen if you decided yourself. If the consequences are manageable, just do it. Experiment with a few decisions that you want to get your manager’s input on and see what happens. If you really feel like you must consult your manager, have an opinion and go ready to explain your rationale.

  • Know your role and responsibilities. Be clear on how you are expected to spend your time. Know how much work you are expected to take on. And know how much time it takes you to do your work—track your time, if you need to. Being informed and equipped with data can help you be in control of your time and bandwidth instead of just having to go with the flow.

  • Understand the business. Learn about the context that surrounds you and think about how your work plugs into the larger ecosystem. Make connections with peers across the company. Listen to what’s going on in other teams, share information you hear. Connect the dots. Again, knowledge (and relationships) are power. 


 

Gone are the days where work ought to be just clocking in, clocking out, and doing what you’re told. If we want to reframe our relationships to work, autonomy and the power to shape our environment needs to be front and center. As a manager, creating a culture of autonomy can help keep your employees engaged and motivated. As a worker, taking a responsibility for your autonomy is an autonomous act in and of itself.


We spend decades at work. Autonomy can help make sure we enjoy and look forward to those years, rather than dragging ourselves through them. 


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