When You Offer Autonomy at Work, You Get Performance

Cristiana Tănase

9 minutes read

When You Offer Autonomy at Work, You Get Performance

Do we like to feel controlled? Obviously not. Do we like to have control over others? Some may say yes. The vast majority, however, would happily give up this apparent privilege for something much more precious: autonomy. Try to make a simple survey around you and you’ll see that people would rather appreciate having control over their own lives than over others. And while on a personal level autonomy makes us happier, keeping autonomy at work makes us both happier and more successful.

From entry-level positions to top management ones, we all want performance in our work. We want it because it gives us a solid sense of professional satisfaction, but also because performing employees make up high-performing organizations. While old paradigms emphasized control as a key-factor in achieving performance, it is now becoming increasingly clear that coercive methods are simply incompatible with a successful organization. Why? Because people tend to limit their involvement when they feel conditioned, over-supervised and controlled step-by-step.

Have you ever had contact with teams that seemed to be acting on autopilot, without deviation from standard procedures, but also without that sparkle that stimulates creativity and brings unexpected results? How much autonomy is there in such an organization? Or, more specifically, how much is autonomy restricted in such an organization and with what performance losses?

Let’s first clarify what autonomy at work is and what it is not! Autonomy means to be in charge of our experiences and actions, to have a high degree of independence and responsibility in projects that concern us. This sense of involvement and having options naturally results in enthusiasm, interest, soul connection to our activities. Autonomy is therefore slightly different from the classic definition of independence. Autonomy is not so much about acting on our own as being self-determined, setting our personal working methods while staying aligned with the goals of our team and organization.

Many institutions restrict the autonomy of their employees because they confuse it with a lack of rigor and discipline. But allowing people to work autonomously doesn’t mean leaving them without coordination and guidance. It does not mean encouraging your employees to work in isolation from the rest of the team, without being aware of the results of others or without in turn informing about one’s working progress. It does not mean removing deadlines, targets and business requirements. On the contrary, an autonomous working environment is based on competence, trust, respect and integrity. In such an environment there is structure and coordination, while each employee is in charge with the details of his/her work.

As a manager who encourages autonomy, you’ll see that your team is getting more efficient and is capable of harmonizing itself. Recent studies have shown that in autonomous teams members support each other’s strengths and compensate each other’s weaknesses. This is a natural consequence of the confidence invested in them; feeling trusted, employees will be more satisfied, cooperative and loyal. They will want to honour the trust they have received and will perform better in terms of both individual and team involvement.

3 valuable suggestions on how you can create an autonomous team:

  1. Flexibility is a key factor. People need to feel they have options and the freedom to choose their own paths in work. Moreover, team members are the true specialists in charge with specific segments within the projects. As a manager, what really should matter for you is having goals achieved on time. This means you can offer your employees more autonomy and flexibility in choosing their working schedule, where they work from and the methods they use to deliver best results.
  2. Open communication in both directions. Employees need to be helped to understand the main directions and goals of a project, but further on any autonomous team will manage its own work and implement step by step what needs to be done. Autonomy also means having everyone’s opinions heard. By truly listening to them, a manager can more easily discover what has to be corrected or improved.
  3. Last but not least, in an autonomous working environment everyone gets easy access to the tools they need. Autonomy requires transparency in information and resources, such as technology and training.

Why do we want autonomy at work? Because autonomy keeps us motivated and creative. Because it allows us to work with enthusiasm, to manage our time and talents efficiently. Because it gives us a sense of self-confidence and trust on the part of our employer. Because that’s how we give our best and feel valued. Because when we are autonomous our results improve and keep growing. Because an autonomous environment is flexible and doesn’t keep us tied to a fixed desk, but keeps us connected to what really matters in achieving performance.

What does autonomy at work mean to you and how much do you value it?

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Written by Cristiana Tănase


Former bank officer for 12 years, I am currently testing entrepreneurial remote work and a self-taught way of life which combines different hobbies.

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