The human psyche requires 3 basic things to thrive: mastery, autonomy, and purpose. Last week I talked about the importance of being allowed to show competence (mastery) at work. So this week, I’m covering the second requirement – autonomy.

If you think about it, the purpose of our experiences in childhood, puberty, and adolescence is to enter adulthood as autonomous human beings. We should know how to make decisions, set goals, and choose the actions to get us to those goals. Then, as adults, we’re expected to do all of these things pretty much under our own steam – motivating ourselves and exercising autonomy in our lives.

Autonomy and Work

So what about autonomy and work? Do you know how to do the work you’re asked to do? Do you get to make decisions about how you accomplish your goals and tasks?

Or, do you feel that the decisions you make are second guessed by your supervisor? Does it feel like no one trusts you to do your job the right way? Do you know, deep in your soul, if they’d just let you do your work, you could kill it?

If you answered yes to those last questions, you aren’t being allowed to exercise enough autonomy in your job. Unfortunately, many managers feel the need to control the way their employees work. They believe that when workers follow their rules and work the way they are told, increased productivity will follow. These managers believe that control guarantees results. It doesn’t.

Autonomy and being engaged in your work

As Daniel Pink says in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, “Control leads to compliance, autonomy leads to engagement.” What an interesting thought, particularly in light of the 2014 study by the Gallup organization showing that only 31.5% of American workers say they’re not engaged at work! The study found that the most disengaged employees are in manufacturing and production where workers have little to say in how they perform their work. They’re required to exercise compliance which means following someone else’s procedures and rules to get the job done. The most engaged employees are managers. And, the best managers know that engagement comes from allowing people to have a voice in how they accomplish their work and then being allowed to do it the way they know best.

According to Gallup Business Journal, one of the seven things that exceptional employers realize is that “strong teams are built when the teams themselves size up the problems facing them and take a hands-on approach to solving them.” In other words, engaged teams require autonomy so they can exhibit how their mastery of their work can be used to solve the problems they face.

Autonomy = participation

If you have autonomy at work, you’re invited to participate in the decision making process. You have say in your team’s goals and in determining how to best reach them. You’re expected to show mastery of your work in the way you accomplish those team goals. Your supervisors trust you and your team to get the job done well.

One of my clients was trying to figure out why she disliked her previous position so much. We talked about mastery, autonomy, and purpose. She believed in the purpose of the organization she worked for and the purpose of her work. She knew she exhibited mastery of her work. But she felt that her supervisor micro-managed her and had something to say about everything she did.

Micromanagement is the enemy of autonomy

That micromanagement made my client feel devalued and untrustworthy. Can you see why? Instead of empowering this woman to do her work well and then praising her for it, the supervisor constantly undermined her confidence by second guessing everything she did. As a result, my client ended up leaving her job. Micromanagement is the antithesis of autonomy. It says you don’t know how to do your job, you can’t be trusted to do your best work, you’re incompetent – which, by the way, negates two of the three basic things you need to thrive: autonomy and mastery.

Exercise autonomy at work

So how do you find opportunities to exercise autonomy at work? Look for opportunities to contribute your ideas and opinions. Instead of assuming no one will pay attention to your ideas, you put them out there anyway. The worst that can happen is you will feel that you have a voice ( a critical piece of autonomy) and the best that can happen is the people who receive your ideas adopt them or a version of them. Even if they don’t adopt the ideas in full, they are confirming your ability to contribute to the team.

Another way to exercise autonomy at work is to volunteer for new responsibilities. Instead of assuming that your supervisors know what you can do and what you want to do, let them know explicitly by stepping up to new opportunities and the new work that might follow. I know it can feel risky to volunteer for new work, but recognizing when to take risks is the very foundation of autonomy. When you reach out to try something new – whether or not you end up doing it – you’re setting your own goals and going after them on your own terms. Autonomy.

Interviewing? Signs of autonomy in the workplace

When you’re looking for a new job, read the job descriptions you come across with a discerning eye. You’re looking for words like team-player, driven, self-starter (I know, they’re clichés, but they’re in those job descriptions). When you’re interviewing remotely you can ask questions about how the company lives out its mission, how its teams work, how decisions are made, and how people are rewarded for taking risks. When you’re interviewing face-to-face, you can pay attention to the mood of the office. Do people look content, or do they look strained and tense? Is there a buzz of work going on, or is there dead silence? People who are allowed to exercise some autonomy in their work will look more content. They know that they have some control over what they do. Silence might indicate that people are being micromanaged. So, paying attention to these cues can give you a lot about how a company functions.

So, to wrap it up, autonomy at work means you have some say in how you work, in how you meet your goals, and in decision making that affects you. When you’re allowed to exercise autonomy at work, you inevitably become more productive and creative because you are  empowered to do your best work the way you know how to do it best. You will thrive at work and you’ll bring that feeling home with you at the end of the day!