A young professional woman smiling with a window in the background, showing why autonomy is important in the workplace.

How much direction should managers give employees? Why is autonomy in the workplace important?

At work, your manager might judge your performance with benchmarks calibrated to the average worker. Psychologist Todd Rose argues in The End of Average that individuality among employees is ultimately better for a company’s bottom line. Autonomy is a key that unlocks this door.

Read more to understand why autonomy is important in the workplace.

Why Autonomy Is Important in the Workplace

Rose recommends that employers give workers more control over the ways they spend their time. Instead of forcing employees to rigidly follow directions, managers should allow them to accomplish the organization’s goals the best way they can. Rose explains why autonomy is important in the workplace, contending that, by encouraging workers to find their own creative solutions, managers can leverage their team’s unique strengths to constantly improve the business.

For example, imagine you run a restaurant and hire someone to wait tables. One day, they tell you that customers frequently complain about the confusing menu layout. They reveal that they used to be a freelance graphic designer, and they ask if you’d be willing to pay them to design a new menu. Whereas most organizations wouldn’t even consider this offer, Rose might recommend asking for samples of their work, paying them to create a new menu, and giving them more graphic design work if they succeed.

(Shortform note: High-autonomy jobs result in more innovative work, but Cal Newport warns in So Good They Can’t Ignore You that jobs like this are unfortunately rare. Because they’re so fulfilling, these jobs are in high demand among job seekers, so they’re difficult to get. Thus, Newport argues that if you want a fulfilling career, you should focus on honing your skills rather than following your passion. If you turn yourself into a rare, valuable commodity, you can more easily exchange that value for a fulfilling, autonomous job.)

Autonomy Leads to Evolving Responsibilities

As the restaurant example above shows, giving employees more autonomy at work may lead them to entirely different job positions than what they were originally hired for. Rose argues that this is a good thing—ideally, organizations give their workers flexible career paths. This way, employees can develop and utilize all their unique strengths rather than trying to fit into standardized positions or paths designed for a generic “average” worker.

(Shortform note: In Reinventing Organizations, Frédéric Laloux offers one way organizations can create flexible internal career paths: by defining job roles rather than job descriptions. Whereas job descriptions list all the work bound to one employee, job roles define a single narrow duty that can be passed between employees. Job roles allow workers to tackle whatever tasks they’re the most equipped and motivated to do, instead of getting boxed in by a rigid description. Rather than getting “promoted” and being forced into “high-status” management tasks, employees advance by growing into whatever roles let them do their best work. Laloux contends that in the future, most successful businesses will likely adopt this practice.)

When managers give employees more control over their work and allow their job responsibilities to evolve, these managers show that they respect their workers as unique individuals rather than seeing them as machines. Rose contends that, in turn, employees will repay them with more passionate work and loyalty to the company. This is profitable for the company—passionate employees are more productive, and loyal employees will stick with the organization in the long term, reducing the expense of employee turnover.

(Shortform note: In It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson concur with Rose, adding that if you want to maximize the benefits of investing in employees, it’s not enough to support them at work. To fully support employees as individuals, managers should offer benefits that encourage them to develop their personal lives, such as fully paid sabbaticals or gym memberships.)

Why Autonomy Is Important in the Workplace (Todd Rose)

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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