Autonomy: The Secret to Work Bliss

Career Advice

The 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) has been completed and the data analysis is underway. How well will the organization you’re affiliated with fare in the 2017 results? While you wait, consider that the 2016 results in “Effective Leadership: Empowerment” category very closely tracked with the Overall Rankings for large organizations.  Last year, in the category, National Aeronautics and Space Administration topped the list in both categories, while the Department of Homeland Security came in last. Why the near mirror correlation? Research indicates that as autonomy or empowerment increases, so does employee satisfaction, engagement, productivity, and commitment to the organization. It might even affect an employee’s health.

AUTONOMY DEFINED

What is this elusive condition called autonomy? Although it varies by organization and its respective culture, autonomy (also known as empowerment) is the amount of authority employees have to make decisions about their work. If employees perceive they have some level of influence over how, when, where and with whom they do their work, autonomy is present.

WHAT IS THE OPPOSITE OF AUTONOMY?

You’ll know it when you see it. In the early days, it’s the talented and motivated employee who consistently expresses a willingness to take on projects because he’s using only a small percentage of his skillset. Further along, it’s the employee who seems frustrated by his inability to implement small to moderate changes or initiatives that he believes should be in his sphere of influence. Toward the end of the motivational spiral, it’s the employee who works only within his prescribed boundaries, suggests few or no improvements, and waits to be told what to do next. And voila: The self-starter you hired six months ago is now just another undermotivated, disgruntled employee.

AUTONOMY AND THE LADDER:

Speak to any U.S. Government (USG) or contractor professional and you’ll hear that a promotion doesn’t equal an increase in autonomy. Many USG employees lament that they had more autonomy in a lower grade than they do in their current roles. And while contractor work force professionals often earn proportionately larger salaries than their USG counterparts, they often feel little to no autonomy in their advisory roles.

WHAT AUTONOMY IS NOT:

Autonomy does NOT equal isolated, singular efforts. It also doesn’t mean that collaboration is no longer necessary to achieve consensus about strategic initiatives that effect the larger organization. Autonomy is also not an absence of accountability or never having to answer to the next level of management. Autonomy is not an excuse to go rogue or make decisions that will affect others without their input. There’s no place for a superhero mentality, even for the most autonomous, empowered individuals.

WHY AUTONOMY MATTERS:

Giving employees more autonomy can improve many elements managers hope for when they build their dream teams. A study of 1,380 members of a community health center in Taiwan found those who perceived they had autonomy were more satisfied with and engaged in their jobs – and less likely to leave them. Another study conducted in the United States, Europe and India has suggested that when employees look for power or responsibility, they are actually seeking autonomy to influence their own work situations, not necessarily those of others. Good to know as while not everyone can be in charge, there’s usually room to distribute some autonomy amongst team members.

Keep an eye out for upcoming articles, when we’ll explore how managers can give more autonomy to their employees, and how employees can take more for themselves.

Melissa Jordan is an Executive Writer at a US Government agency. With more than 20 years in professional communication and over 16 years of experience working in cross-cultural environments, her most valuable lessons have been learned by trial and error.

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