Is Autonomy Important In Your Job? They Think So.

“Control leads to compliance; AUTONOMY leads to engagement.” ­––Daniel Pink

Is autonomy important in your job and does it promote employee engagement? According to the book, ENGAGEMENT MAGIC®: Five Keys for  Engaging People, Leaders, and Organizations, Autonomy is the second key to employee engagement in the ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® formula, Meaning, Autonomy, Growth, Impact, and Connection.


Autonomy, as it relates to work, is: The power to shape your work and environment in ways that allow you to perform at your best.

That’s Not Autonomy; That’s Lack of Leadership

Despite this clear definition, there are a lot of misconceptions about autonomy. Autonomy is NOT:

  • Working in isolation. Being autonomous doesn’t give a person the right to work without supervision or collaborators.
  • It’s not doing whatever you like whenever you like. In an organization with high levels of autonomy, the employer defines the boundaries of the employee’s control and decision-making power.
  • It’s not working without a net. Autonomous employees receive strong, clear guidance from supervisors, established procedures, manuals, and so on. Employees shouldn’t be left to figure things out on their own. That’s not autonomy; that’s lack of leadership.

Autonomy is not about leaving people alone. Employees typically don’t want to be left alone. They want clear directions, rules, and expectations. In other words, hire GOOD people, give them what they need to do their jobs well, and get out of their way.

Is autonomy important to you and your job?

Here are some real-world employees that find autonomy to be essential in creating true employee engagement:

Bryan Clayton, GreenPal

As CEO of GreenPal, the Uber for Lawn Care, I recommend never telling people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity. That is one of my favorite quotes from General George S. Patton:

“To empower and get the most of your teammates you’ll need to outline what the big picture objective is and then get out of their way and let them show you they can do it.”

Last year we had a new hire that we placed in a similar situation. Online reviews are a big part of our platform’s success. Our new customer experience manager was tasked with getting new online reviews for our company. I started to outline my ideas for tactical ways to do this, but then I realized that I wanted him to own the project. I simply told him that the objective was to get 20 new reviews for every city in which we operate.
Well as it turns out he was a big dog lover.

He came up with the idea of placing into our sign-up process a questionnaire about what kinds of pets our customers have. He then studied that data and mailed each of those customers a thank you note along with a one dollar dog bone.

The response was tremendous, and our online reviews came pouring in, and we also got some great social media coverage out of as well with our customers sharing the card, and treats to their Instagram Facebook pages.

Put your people in positions where they get to own the results and If they are unable to deliver, then odds are you don’t have the right person on your team anyway. This is especially critical for employees for small businesses as the first 2-10 teammates you high will make a break or success.

Julie Ozlek, Soom Foods

As a new member of the startup tahini company, Soom Foods, the owners have given me the freedom to develop my role, skills, and relationships within this position. Whether it be creating social media copy and collateral, writing blog posts on our website, analyzing metrics, or working with third-parties, they allow me to work autonomously because they trust my thought-process through my holistic understanding of the brand and the company’s goals. Not only does this sense of autonomy shine within my role, but also amongst all the other employees at Soom.

Steven Benson, CEO of Badger Mapping

Everyone at Badger Mapping, even interns, is encouraged to join whatever projects they’re most interested in. We have the projects that we have to get done, and I basically let people gravitate towards the areas where they want to contribute. Because people choose to run the projects and take responsibility for them, it’s up to them to make sure they build the team and get people’s help to complete the project.

For example, one intern was interested in HR and came up with a complete strategy and HR program. She built it from the bottom up and launched it on her own. She was given autonomy to make all decisions in terms of how it should be set up and what it should contain while I was only there for guidance if she had any questions or concerns.

Every Monday at our company, we have a full team meeting for 15 minutes, and everyone who is running a project will update the group on where things are at and ask people for help where they need it. People then join the projects they want to join, even if it’s different than their job description. If an engineer or an engineering intern wants to get involved in a marketing project, they’re encouraged to do so. If a salesperson or sales intern wants to get involved in a QA project, the same thing––I want them to do it.

Getting people to work with and understand different parts of the company is good for their development and good for employee engagement in the company. This type of autonomy gives people the experiences that build empathy for other parts of the organization and helps the whole company function better. I really believe that when you give employees autonomy, they dig deep and find the best version of themselves.

Without Trust, Autonomy Doesn’t Exist

One quality that each of these examples have in common is TRUST. Without trust, autonomy is impossible and trust is earned, but supervisors need to learn to stop “running the machine” and let employees do their work.

How to Promote Autonomy

So, what can a leader do to promote autonomy and employee engagement in his/her organization?

  • Grant employees ownership over projects.
  • Create an environment that offers both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators (Read the book) 
  • Provide your people with tools and resources they need to reach your goals and theirs.
  • Show your people you trust them and get out of the way and let them do their thing.

Once employees have a taste of true autonomy, they won’t want to give it up. So, tread carefully if attempting to take it away. It will be a surefire employee engagement killer.

Read how 15 employees see MEANING in their jobs.
Read how these companies promote GROWTH opportunities to their employees.
Read how these employees see IMPACT in their jobs.
Read how these employees find CONNECTION in their jobs.

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