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Why Autonomy Is a Key Element of Job Satisfaction

The right amount can increase productivity and general well-being.

Source: Mikhail Nilov / Pexels
Source: Mikhail Nilov / Pexels

I recently had conversations with two highly paid young professionals who had low levels of job satisfaction. One was especially bothered by how closely her time had to be monitored; it was a continual source of stress. The other was especially disturbed by how little control he had over his schedule; it was a continual source of aggravation. When I later thought more about their circumstances, it felt like they shared a common connection: autonomy, or lack thereof.

While the notion of flexibility receives a great deal of attention in today's business world (flexible hours, flexibility to change, etc.), a related concept, autonomy, receives considerably less. Yet autonomy, generally involving a person's ability to make his or her own decisions, can also be critically important to job satisfaction.

In one recent study discussed in a Harvard Business Review article, the data showed that "the flexibility they [employees] want is conditional upon their ability to exercise it in a way that best fits them. In other words, it's conditional upon autonomy." Another study, from the University of Birmingham Business School, examined "changes in reported well-being relative to levels of autonomy." Their conclusion: Greater autonomy was related to higher levels of general well-being and job satisfaction.

I've written a fair amount about the value of workplace flexibility over the years; I've come to believe that autonomy, which represents a certain type of flexibility, can be extremely important (even essential) to certain employees, though not necessarily so to all.

Distinctly different personalities

One thing I definitely learned over the course of a long management career is that "one size doesn't fit all." Approaches that work great for one person may well be ineffective for another. Two of the best employees I ever managed, both very valuable in their own ways, illustrate this.

One woman, who was in charge of massive projects, liked nothing better than to be left alone to organize things in her own way. She chafed under micromanagement (or even what I'd consider average levels of management). She wanted basic high-level direction, and then to be allowed to go her own way and put her own creative stamp on things. Autonomy was as vital to her as air. Working this way, she was highly productive and delivered outstanding results.

Another employee who was in charge of smaller projects had an entirely different connection to autonomy. He liked frequent check-ins to make sure he was on the right track, and wanted close feedback and assurance. He took constructive criticism well and was a consummate team player. Most comfortable in a closely-managed environment, he was highly productive and delivered outstanding results.

In sum, as these stories show, my sense is that autonomy is often, though not always, a key to job satisfaction. Many people seek it, while others — likely a smaller number, as suggested by the Birmingham study discussed above — will prefer less of it. But regardless of individuals' specific connections to autonomy, it remains a critical variable in the everyday workplace environment for managers to bear in mind.

References

Reisinger, H. & Fetterer, D. (2021). Forget Flexibility. Your Employees Want Autonomy. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/10/forget-flexibility-your-employees-want-autonomy

University of Birmingham (2017). Autonomy in the workplace has positive effects on well-being and job satisfaction, study finds. Science Daily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/04/170424215501.htm

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