Autonomy and Workplace Culture

I have recently read Dan Pink’s Drive and Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and have been struck by a sentiment common to both: the importance of autonomy in helping to make individuals feel motivated and happy in the workplace.

Dan Pink writes about autonomy, mastery and purpose, the three factors that science shows motivate most effectively. Gretchen Rubin discusses the role of autonomy in shaping our lives in a wider sense, and highlights that having a degree of freedom and control over our working lives is an important factor in overall happiness.

What do we mean by autonomy? I think the most useful description is ‘freedom of action within some broad boundaries’ which comes from Michael Hill, an IT Coach. He describes a RAMPS framework of management (the five drives he believes must be balanced for strong motivation: Rhythm, Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose, & Safety).

If Pink, Rubin and Hill are right, and people are more motivated by working in autonomous roles, why aren’t we all working more autonomously? There are lots of possible answers, but at its heart, the answer is perhaps to do with leadership. It could be that managing people who are more autonomous requires a different set of skills in a leader and could be on occasions more complex and demanding.

There is undoubtedly a spectrum, which accepts that different types of tasks require different types of control. This useful diagram from the Australian Institute of Leadership (below: see 'Empowerment') shows that a high level of autonomy within a team is critical for overall effectiveness, alongside a medium (rather than high) level of authority from the leader. As they state themselves, “The ideal leadership styles are those with an engaged, autonomous team, yet with the efficiency and productivity that comes through active leadership.”

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It is increasingly incumbent upon leaders to take time to reflect on their own leadership style and the workplace culture that they have created – is it truly enabling and empowering of others? Does the culture give people real control over various aspects of their work – for example in terms of how, when or where it is done?

We’re working with a number of organisations – in the public, private and third sectors – on how they get the balance right between a culture that is driven centrally from the top and one that is more flexible and ensures space for individuals to flourish. Asking employees some key questions about workplace culture can be a helpful place to start. If organisations can foster an improved sense of autonomy among colleagues, everyone will reap the benefits of working with more motivated, happier individuals.