I’ve spoken to a number of people recently who have complained about a lack of autonomy at work. They talk about being micro-managed by their bosses. About being given solutions to implement, rather than problems to solve. About restrictions on what they can and cannot do in the environment.

What is autonomy? The word literally means “self-governing” and Self-Determination Theory defines it as “the need to self-regulate ones’ experiences and actions”.1 It’s being able to make decisions for ourselves.

Clearly, living within a society or working within a company does provide constraints to the autonomy we have. There are rules and conventions that we need to follow so autonomy is not a boolean (on or off), but rather a sliding scale. We have more or less autonomy in the environment we’re in. So when we talk about not having autonomy, it’s not a matter of not having any, it’s a matter of not having enough.

Autonomy is a key element in psychological safety, motivation and general well-being1.

It should be obvious why not having sufficient autonomy is undesirable for the individual. We’re less motivated and less happy.

It may be less obvious why this is also an undesirable state for the leadership of the organization. When we are feeling unsafe or have lost that intrinsic motivation then we are less productive and that affects the bottom line. Even more so when large numbers of people are in the same state.

Ultimately, if productivity is suffering because the people doing the work do not have sufficient autonomy then this is a failure of leadership.

“Although our conscious response may appear to accept directions, at a nonconscious level our threat response can be triggered, and we resist. That resistance may be so strong that it sabotages our conscious efforts to listen and comply, particularly when directions are imposed upon us rather than chosen or invited. Our amygdala can perceive this intrusion as a threat and shut down our prefrontal cortex (PFC), impacting our ability to process instructions.”
Psychological Safety: The key to happy, high-performing people and teams2

In my experience with development teams, telling them what problems need to be solved rarely causes issues with autonomy, so long as they can see value in them. Telling them how they have to solve those problems usually does. They want to solve problems and given sufficient autonomy, will find interesting and creative ways to do so.

Does this imply that we can’t ever tell people how to work? In most cases, that’s true although there are exceptions. For example, people will not necessarily lose their sense of autonomy when ordered to do something that they already support.1 If we mandate the use of a process or tool and that’s what they would have picked anyway, or at least they feel it’s a reasonable decision, that’s unlikely to be a problem.

“Although attempts at coercion or external control need not always undermine a sense of autonomy, Friedman (2003) argues (and Self-Determination Theory’s empirical findings support) that they typically do.”
Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness1

What about people who seem to want to be told what to do? We’ve all seen people like that, and it usually indicates that something else is even more lacking in the environment and it’s exhibiting itself as people not wanting to make decisions for themselves.

  • Perhaps there is a lack of consistency in the environment and people are feeling sufficiently unsafe from that and having you tell them what to do is helping make them feel slightly more safe. See Security in the SAFETY model. Once you’ve fixed that security issue, you’ll need to come back to autonomy.
  • Perhaps there is such a lack of motivation already that they just don’t care enough to make decisions anymore. See amotivation and again, once you’ve fixed that problem, you’ll need to come back to autonomy.

Over time, a lack of autonomy has even more serious implications. It can lead to a state of learned helplessness, which impacts productivity even further and can have a major impact on our health. It is commonly linked to depression, anxiety, and stress.2

Sufficient autonomy is critical if we want our people to be effective, motivated, and happy.

  1. Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness by Ryan & Deci, 2018  2 3 4

  2. Psychological Safety: The key to happy, high-performing people and teams by Dr Dan Radecki PhD, Leonie Hull, Jennifer McCusker, Christopher Ancona. This is a deep dive into the SAFETY model and the neuroscience behind it.  2