A Sensible Discussion about Autonomy

Organisations continue to look at increasing the autonomy of competent employees to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy or enable greater personal discretion over when, where and how they perform their role. In both instances, measurable improvements are expected in employee alignment with organisational goals and an individual’s productivity.

Autonomy has its benefits and challenges and so in this article, I’ll use independent research and my leadership experience of over 20 years to discuss a sensible approach to autonomy.

A sensible discussion about Autonomy

What is Autonomy?

Simply put, autonomy is allowing staff to determine what actions should be taken and when, and where and how they produce their work.

In a recent blog, Work and Happiness[1], I described how happiness in the workplace depends on employees feeling a sense of purpose, community, and respect as a valuable and contributing member of their organisation.

Companies that empower their staff experience greater employee engagement and increased performance against goals and key performance indicators as a direct result of employees feeling a greater sense of ownership and accountability. In contrast, people with little freedom in how they perform their role can become disengaged, and companies can see productivity and job satisfaction suffer.

Is Autonomy on the Rise?

All indications show empowerment is an essential ingredient in creating and maintaining a productive and rewarding workplace: but is it increasing? According to AON’s 2015 Trends in Global Employee Engagement Report,[2] “The overall work experience is deteriorating – particularly regarding enablement, autonomy, and the sense of accomplishment.”

AON’s survey analyses many factors that directly affect employee engagement including autonomy. In both the US and Europe, their data show drops in autonomy between 5% and 6% between 2013 and 2014. In Australia, autonomy increased by 3% over the same period. So what can Australian employers do to continue that trend and reap the benefits of this valuable management tool?

When and Where Autonomy Works

For some occupations, autonomy can be limited. A retail employee may have discretion in the manner in which they greet their customers, but you certainly won’t be letting them take their cash drawer home at night to balance and reconcile.

In contrast someone in product development who designs new or improves existing products or services could have flexibility regarding how they go about those processes. They can use their discretion on where and how to focus their efforts rather than following a set of strictly-defined instructions or workflow models.


The most important factor to consider when determining autonomy is the experience and level of competency in the role. Competency levels define a level of skill and mastery. Low skill and mastery mean less autonomy and more direction: more skill and mastery mean less direction and more autonomy.

Determining how and where to provide autonomy requires careful consideration. In addition to the dictates of the position, autonomy is highly dependent on the employee’s individual strengths and weaknesses.

Experience and level of competency


Benefit or Detriment?

Can autonomy work in your firm? Research indicates that autonomy works best in stable organisations, where employees can perform their function with a high level of independence.

Organisations may fear that an autonomous employee pool will result in lower productivity, but a recent study shows the opposite may be true. A survey[3] by Nicholas Bloom, Professor of Economics at Stanford University, and Co-Director of the Productivity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research, followed a group of employees at China’s Ctrip, one of the country’s largest travel agents. Staff members were given the option to work their call center jobs from home. The surprising results: compared to the control group who stayed in the office, the productivity of the Work from Home Group increased by 13 percent and attrition was 50 percent lower than their work-in-the-office counterparts. The ability to simply control “where” the work was performed had a positive effect on employee performance as well as retention.

Implementing Autonomy

Shifting to a more autonomous structure can be challenging, particularly where there are a long-established hierarchy and strictly defined roles. Structural change can cause individuals to feel their level of responsibility or status is being eroded, particularly if those under their direction are being granted more independence.

Empathize with those managers, certainly, but explain that as autonomy increases across the organisation, the control they relinquish could lead to greater independence for themselves. Most managerial staff have the responsibility to perform their tasks in addition to directing others. With less need to micromanage staff, their ability to focus on their productivity can increase. Communicating openly about why change is happening and how it aligns with organisational goals is paramount.

Don’t assume all employees want greater autonomy: for some autonomy may result in deeper engagement and better performance in their role. Others may not enjoy the additional responsibility or may believe they lack appropriate skills.

Considerations when Implementing Autonomy

When introducing greater autonomy, I suggest a holistic approach: a necessary organisational support including learning and development should be provided.

Employee performance and comfort should be reviewed throughout the process as it unfolds. If adjustments are necessary, they can be incremental and easier to manage than an entire revamping or dismissal of the program. The key is to monitor how the process rolls out at each phase, so corrections can be made before they become problematic.

Conversely, if autonomy is not successful, there must be consideration given to rescinding this benefit if needed. Any reduction should be managed carefully. The employee must be given the reason for the shift with a high level of sensitivity. If autonomy is not successful because of business-related factors, rather than negative performance, candor and transparency are key to retaining productivity in the wake of removing autonomy.


Employee autonomy can be a double-edged sword. Too little can lead to staff members who feel their talents are unrecognized, their capabilities are minimized, and they are being micromanaged. Frustration and disengagement can result which invariably cause lower productivity. Too much autonomy can translate into an organisation that is highly busy but low on productivity. And, as non-directed employees work against each other, rather than moving in the same direction, anarchy can be the result.

Using autonomy responsibly, by role, competency, and skill level requires thoughtful consideration to reap the maximum benefits. For roles that require greater independence, I believe it’s imperative that learning needs be considered when increasing autonomy, along with well-defined expectations in place for the employee.

A careful review of the benefits to the company and the employee must be monitored on an ongoing basis, and thoughtful consideration must occur when removing or reducing autonomy if needed.

A prosperous balance can lie in an individualized mix of both empowerment and traditional management styles. Using autonomy successfully is a result of being aware of the needs of the company and the employee, and assuring that the level of independence enhances, rather than diminishes, engagement and productivity.


  1. Cognology, 2016 Work and Happiness https://cognology.com.au/work-and-happiness/
  1. Aon/Hewitt, 2015 Trends in Global  Employee Engagement http://www.aon.com/attachments/human-capital-consulting/2015-Trends-in-Global-Employee-Engagement-Report.pdf
  1. Roberts and Bloom, 2016 A Working from Home Experiment Shows High Performers Like It Better https://hbr.org/2015/01/a-working-from-home-experiment-shows-high-performers-like-it-better