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The Importance of Autonomy in the Workplace

In our last blog, after examining the pitfalls of handing out unsolicited advice, we concluded by saying that a characteristic of effective leadership was the ability to trust people to do their job without you having to constantly wade in.

Let’s dig a little deeper into why that is the case. There is science behind the notion that showing trust in your team and giving individuals the autonomy to do things in their own way leads to better outcomes all round.

In the first place, worker autonomy is linked with higher levels of job satisfaction. In 2017, the University of Birmingham published findings of a major workforce study involving some 20,000 people. On the issue of the levels of autonomy workers felt they had at work, it found marked differences across occupations, across job roles and skill levels, and between the sexes. It also found that the more independence people had in their jobs, the happier they were.

The difference between job roles and skill levels is worth pulling out here. As a manager, part of your job description – you might even say your raison d’être – is to make decisions and to take responsibility for how things are done and the results achieved. Management demands a high level of autonomy and hands leaders significant amounts of control over their work.

As you slide down the employment ladder, autonomy and levels of control diminish. Decision-making is something handled higher up the chain of command. At the bottom of the pile, you may get very little say in anything that happens in your working life.

Problems with hierarchy

Hierarchy in business has traditionally been used as a way to make sure operations are coordinated and efficient, following a pattern determined from on high. Which in itself is fine. But the trade off is, by actively seeking to restrict autonomy in the majority of workers, you remove their sense of agency, their sense of responsibility, their sense of self-worth.

A lack of autonomy in the workplace can lead to frustration and, arguably worse, disinterest. When you have no say in the way things are done, it is difficult to care about outcomes. Work becomes ‘just a job’, and there is little personal motive beyond taking your wage packet to giving your all.

Autonomy is therefore a critical tool for raising performance levels. If people feel they have room to make decisions on how a particular project is approached, or how they organise their working day, they have a stake in the outcomes. Accountability is key here – the buck stops with those making the decisions, so if everyone in your team is a decision-maker in one capacity or another, they all share a sense of responsibility for achievement.

This not only motivates people to give their best, either from a sense of personal pride or responsibility to the team, it is also how people grow. No one learns or develops high-level skills nearly as quickly when they are simply being told what to do all the time as they do when they are exploring their own ideas and, yes, making their own mistakes. Every manager there has ever been has had to learn this way at some point.

Providing space for autonomous thinking also fosters a culture of innovation, where people are given the room to think creatively and take risks in the pursuit of operational improvements.

Finally, to bring it back full circle, autonomy is also about trust and value. When you delegate decision-making powers down the organisational ladder, you tell people that you trust them, that their ideas and opinions matter and, just as crucially, that you will support them whatever the outcomes. That helps to give people the self-belief that they can achieve and also encourages loyalty, a sense of belonging, to the business.