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On Motivation: Autonomy In The Workplace

Posted on September 27th, 2016 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence


We’ve looked before at the impact our motivation (or lack of) can have on our work or that of the people around us. Last time I talked a little about some of the different things that can motivate people, and in particular the effectiveness of intrinsic motivators rather than extrinsic motivators (things like autonomy and purpose rather than money or extra vacation time).Over the next three posts, I’d like to dive a little deeper into those intrinsic motivators. I’m going to focus on the three that Dan Pink highlights in his work on motivation:

Autonomy – the ability to set our own direction

Mastery – the practice of getting better and better at something

Purpose – serving something bigger than ourselves.

If you’re a little lost already, read this post first. It should cover what you need to know.

Autonomous Workers

There are plenty of studies which show that increasing the autonomy of a workforce can have a significant impact on their creativity, productivity and job satisfaction. As an engineer, I can certainly relate to that. I’m at my best when solving problems and figuring out how best to reach technical and commercial goals. I perform better when doing that than turning the handle of a process someone has given me.

Especially when in an innovative space or when creating something new, the freedom to explore and figure things out for myself is incredibly valuable. That’s what autonomy is about.

In his talk where he highlights Autonomy as one of the three key intrinsic motivators, Dan Pink says this:

Traditional notions of management are great if you want compliance. But if you want engagement self-direction works better.

While there are a lot of roles where I think prioritizing compliance is no bad thing, there are plenty more where creativity and engagement have a greater benefit. And so perhaps we should be rethinking how we handle the management of staff and tasks at work.

But how does it actually work in practice? How can we introduce or adopt more autonomy or self-direction in our workplaces?

Autonomy In Practice

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that will work here. There are companies all around the world trying to find something that fits for them. But here I want to highlight two ideas for introducing more autonomy that have been effective in my own career.

Collaborative Goals

It’s a pretty common practice for most of us to have performance reviews at work, often once a year. Usually we’re assessed against previously agreed goals and targets, then new goals are set for the upcoming year.

When thinking about how people usually respond to those reviews though, and in particular to the goals that have been set, it seems quite intuitive that people would be more motivated to hit a goal they’ve set themselves than one that’s been thrust upon them.

Letting people set their own goals, or at least letting them shape some of the specifics of their goals, can be a very simple way of increasing their ownership and autonomy over their own work.

Measure The Results, Not The Process

One way some companies are increasing the autonomy of their staff is to implement a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). In this approach, there’s an emphasis on setting and meeting objectives, rather than stipulating how or when they’re achieved.

One of the more extreme examples of this approach is Virgin, who implement an unlimited leave policy for their staff. Although that may be too big a step for many.

I have personally found a flexible working arrangement extremely beneficial for my productivity and creativity. Not being tied to my desk for set hours in a day has given me autonomy over how and when to do my work, which has allowed me to put in more time when it’s been needed and to be more efficient when it’s not.

This approach will only work for certain types of roles though. Typically, this sort of model will be a good fit for those in a creative, design driven role and not for those relying on fixed touch points with other teams or supporting and responding to an ongoing process (as in most manufacturing processes).

These two are only just scratching the surface of the ways to increase autonomy in the workplace. It would be great to hear some of your ideas or experiences in the comments below. Next time, we’ll take a closer look at mastery and how we can use it as a motivator in our workplaces.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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