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Autonomy and Job Satisfaction

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The ability to make some decisions about the work that you do is a better motivator than money, wrote Belle Beth Cooper, in a Quartz article in May. She pointed to some of the research and how to utilize this knowledge as a leader.

Cooper writes that autonomy, the ability to have control over one’s actions, affects job satisfaction, engagement levels at work, and turnover. It can also reduce stress levels among customer-service employees. She cites one study that found a correlation between decreased autonomy and coronary heart disease among British civil servants.

Perceived job autonomy is found to be a highly significant indicator of job satisfaction, according to economics researchers from Lancaster University. Steve Maier, a neuroscientist at the University of Colorado, has shown through research with rats and stressful situations, that a greater degree of control in a given situation reduces the level of stress experienced.

David Rock, Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, in an article entitled “Managing with the Brain in Mind,” states: “When an employee experiences a lack of control, or agency, his or her perception of uncertainty is also aroused, further raising stress levels. By contrast, the perception of greater autonomy increases the feeling of certainty and reduces stress.”

Joan Cheverie, in an EDUCAUSE Review article, summarizes how these scientific findings can influence the way managers supervise their staff: “In other words, managers need to learn how to delegate and to give their team autonomy over its work.”

Cheverie identifies a few ways that managers can reduce stress and increase autonomy. First, “Frame goals as essential information to ensure everyone’s success, not as orders to hold people accountable.” Understanding the why is often less obvious to people who sit lower in an organizational structure, and the reasons behind an initiative often provide the context needed for specific change.

Additionally, Cheverie notes that identifying the end goals (the “what”), and letting a team decide the steps needed to get there (the “how’) allows for the team to find a solution that will better suit their preferences, and provide a greater sense of control.

Finally, Cheverie encourages managers to recognize the team’s efforts in achieving goals. Recognition provides the feedback for staff in recognizing how their work directly affects the company’s bottom line.

Cooper also has some pointers for managers to provide greater autonomy.

People have difficulty with relinquishing autonomy or independence, so Cooper suggests that managers start providing autonomy in small increments. For example, a work-from-home policy allowing for one day a week is a safer option that allowing staff to work remotely all the time.

Perceived choice is key. As David Rock had suggested, Cooper recommends providing clear goals and boundaries of what is acceptable behavior. Choices within this sandbox are then up to the team members, and provide a sufficient sense of autonomy.

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