The key to happiness at work isn’t money–it’s autonomy

It’s his call.
It’s his call.
Image: AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda
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When I was around 10 years old, my stay-at-home dad went back to work. For the next few years, he switched jobs a lot. For a while he took portraits in a photography studio; another time, he managed a bookstore. He told me more than once that he was looking for a job with plenty of autonomy. He was an independent spirit and liked to see his own ideas implemented–traits that I inherited from him. To this day, I know personal autonomy is an important factor when he’s choosing a new role.

My dad isn’t the only one who believes some measure of independence is essential in the workplace. Studies have shown that autonomy makes workers more satisfied with their jobs and increases productivity.

“Autonomy is the antithesis of micromanagement,” writes Joan F. Cheverie, manager of professional development programs at the higher education and IT nonprofit EDUCAUSE. And it may be the best way to ensure your employees are happy at work.

In control of your destiny

In the workplace, autonomy essentially means having a job where you can make at least some of the decisions on your own. The degree of autonomy you have can vary dramatically, from having a say in your own goals or the projects you work on, to deciding when and where to do your work. For most people, it’s important to “perceive that they have choices, that what they are doing is of their own volition, and that they are the source of their own actions,” according to Cheverie.

This theory applies to groups as well as individuals. If a work team has the power to make decisions as a group—independent of higher management—that team is autonomous to some degree.

The science of autonomy

So what’s the big deal about autonomy? There are plenty of reasons why it’s worth caring about. One study in Taiwan surveyed 1,380 staff members from 230 community health centers. The more autonomy employees had at work, the more satisfied they were with their jobs and the less likely they were to transfer or leave their positions. Other studies have shown personal autonomy at work correlates to lower turnover among nursing-home workers, higher engagement at work for nurses, and increased job satisfaction among general practitioners in Australia.

Autonomy has also been shown to alleviate negative emotions felt by customer-service employees doing stressful work. According to Steve Maier, a psychology and neuroscience professor at the University of Boulder, stressors we can’t control are far more damaging than stressors we feel we have some control over. It’s even possible that autonomy at work helps determine our longevity: One study of British civil servants found a lack of job control contributed more to incidence of coronary heart disease than standard risks like smoking.

The importance of autonomy becomes even more clear when compared to the deleterious effects of micromanagement. According to one research paper, the costs of long-term micromanagement can include “low employee morale, high staff turnover, [and] reduction of productivity.” In fact, the paper’s authors note, “The negative impacts are so intense that it is labeled among the top three reasons employees resign.”

Clearly, giving workers more control over their tasks is one of the best ways employers can recruit and keep top talent. One study of more than 2,000 people across three continents found that “people were nearly two and a half times more likely to take a job that gave them more autonomy than they were to want a job that gave them more influence,” as New York Magazine’s Melissa Dahl reports.

Team autonomy also tends to decrease the levels of emotional exhaustion felt by individual team members. But in order for autonomy to work its magic, teams need to work as a cohesive unit. If everyone isn’t on the same page about what to do with their independence, the group finds itself uncertain about how to move forward, which actually reduces productivity and effectiveness. To ensure success, managers need to make sure there’s enough structure and leadership in place to keep everyone unified around the team’s goals.

How to hand the reins to employees

All this suggests that managers and bosses would be wise to start loosening the reins on employees and express confidence in others’ abilities to make good decisions. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

First, start small. According to the economic theory of loss aversion, we’re much unhappier when we lose something than when we are pleased when we gain something new. This is the case for autonomy as well. Taking autonomy away from a team negatively impacts the team members and their collective output. So start by increasing your team’s autonomy slowly, rather than risking giving them too much control and having to backtrack later.

It’s also important to find a balance between autonomy and structure. Cheverie suggests in her post at EDUCAUSE that managers “stop telling your staff how to do their job and, instead, set the strategic direction, deadlines, and benchmarks and then allow them to determine how to accomplish the job.” This leaves managers free to focus on high-level, strategic thinking, she says, and gives employees the freedom to design their own approach to the work itself.

Cheverie further suggests encouraging employees to set their own goals. “Self-chosen goals,” she says, “create a specific kind of motivation called intrinsic motivation—the desire to do something for its own sake.”

Finally, remember that the most important aspect of autonomy at work is a perceived feeling of choice. Whether employees are truly able to make their own decisions is less important than whether or not they feel that they are.

David Rock, executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, suggests giving employees a framework within which they can make their own choices: “Try defining the end result really clearly,” he writes, “and outlining the boundaries of what behaviors are okay, then let people create within this frame.”

Employees who feel oppressed by their lack of autonomy may want to talk to managers about potential leadership opportunities on certain projects. If that doesn’t work, it could be time to search for a new gig. Thanks to my dad’s advice and the research I’ve covered here, I won’t take a role that lacks autonomy. It may seem like a small aspect of my work life, but if it can impact my happiness, my job satisfaction, and even my health, it’s not something I’m willing to compromise on.