I recently watched a Ted Talk by author Daniel Pink in which he discussed intrinsic motivation. During the talk, Pink identified several factors that nurture or diminish intrinsic motivation. However the one that stood out the most was “autonomy.”

According to Pink, “to be fully motivated, you must be able to control what you do, when you do it, and who you do it with.”   He goes on to say, “autonomy motivates us to think creatively without needing to conform to strict workplace rules.”

Think about the work you do.  What degree of control do you have over how you do your work?  What degree of control do you have over when you do specific tasks?  Do you have the freedom to approach tasks or responsibilities creatively? Are you encouraged and allowed to incorporate your own ideas at work?

I suspect that people in leadership positions have more control…autonomy…over these things than others in an organization.  As a result, I believe that leaders often don’t understand what it feels like to be without autonomy and as a result may not recognize the need to deliberately discuss autonomy.  However, I believe that there are three things leaders can do:

  • Grant employees the latitude to choose how they do their work. 
  • Encourage employees to incorporate their unique skills and interests in their work.
  • Give employees a voice.

The first and I believe most important strategy leaders can use to cultivate autonomy among employees is to give them the latitude to choose how they do their work.  While some jobs and some tasks require specific procedures or protocols to be followed, there are often components that can vary.   Having a “there’s more than one right answer” paradigm is important and is without cost to the organization. As I’ve suggested before, it is also possible employees may have more effective strategies than those prescribed.

Second, encourage employees to incorporate their unique skills and interests in their work.  These are the things that provide us purpose and enable us to see value in  the work we do.  Not only does encouraging employees to incorporate their unique skills and interests make them feel valued, those things enhance the diversity of the culture. 

The third strategy is to give employees a voice by regularly asking for their feedback and ideas.  Again, there’s a chance that employees will have ideas that improve the organization that would not otherwise be considered.  Creating a culture in which employees are comfortable sharing their ideas and feedback fuels a sense of control and autonomy as employees recognize that their voice counts.

I could dive further into each of these strategies.  And there are likely additional strategies that others have come up with. However, I have found that these three are foundational and can have a significant impact on culture and employee autonomy.

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