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How Autonomy Can Improve Workplace Well-Being

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Letting employees take control of their own careers can make them happier, more engaged and more productive. Just be sure to build a culture of trust before you hand them the keys.

“I do it myself.” This is a phrase that parents everywhere hear uttered by 2-year-olds as they start asserting independence. Every toddler knows the satisfaction of being able to do things by themselves. And while we may not be as strident in the workplace, the ability to accomplish tasks in ways that favor the unique attributes of the team and the environment, are key to workplace happiness.

Often, workers misstate their desire as flexibility in the workplace, but it often boils down to the complicated concept of autonomy. Job autonomy means having some level of control over how you get work done, such as how tasks are accomplished, setting deadlines and where or when work is conducted.

Why is autonomy important?

Autonomy is a significant predictor of engagement, meaningfulness, positive affect and mood. By allowing employees to decide how they complete their tasks, autonomy in a job encourages people to find their own creative solutions.

People with autonomy in their day-to-day work environment tend to have stronger job performance, higher job satisfaction and greater commitment to the organization. They also developed self-reliance and resilience. These are two of many important leadership skills.

At some point or another, we have encountered a person who is micromanaging — a boss who tries to exert too much control over others. This type of management crushes innovation and keeps employees from developing decision-making and leadership skills in the workplace. Micromanagement ultimately leaves in its wake disgruntled, disengaged and frustrated employees. It also promotes a systemic type of learned helplessness.

How can autonomy be promoted in the workplace for well-being?

Set clear goals and guidelines

Clear and effective communication is essential, along with aligned expectations of success. A person can’t make smart, organization-appropriate decisions if they are unsure about the task they are assigned. It is the responsibility of the leader to clarify what the tasks are and then teams can move forward confidently.

Create psychological safety and build a culture of trust

A workplace grounded in trust works efficiently and productively. Delegation helps employees find freedom in their own paths to success. Trust becomes a virtuous cycle, and that mutual trust breeds true innovation. Additionally, when leaders are trusted, internal conflict decreases and job happiness increases.

Be available to your team

A good leader understands when to lean in and provide support to the team. They recognize when autonomy is going awry and disorganization or misalignment is taking over. When a team stalls, outside assistance is important. But even when there is a need for redirection, when a leader steps in, it isn’t to take over; it is to offer guidance and get projects back on track.

Unleash talent

Acknowledging and rewarding good work is critical to continued autonomy and an environment of fulfilling innovation. In addition, supporting employee development is mutually beneficial. Skills development helps the company as a whole and allows employees to tap into new talents and refine their approaches.

Affect and mood increase with additional autonomy. As long as people find the activity they are doing interesting and satisfying, autonomy can help improve overall happiness and well-being. 

You don’t need to be in love with your job to be happy, but feeling engaged and interested to learn more and then having the autonomy to learn at your own pace and innovate using your own skills can make a real difference to your overall well-being.

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