Workplace Autonomy – A Leadership Discussion


When working with organizations, I often profess the need for autonomy for that organization’s employees. However, it’s not as simple as just letting go of the reigns. Recently, I was asked to provide some context as to why I would suggest that. So let’s discuss why one might subscribe to it and what this might look like.

First, allow me to clarify something important. As we have this discussion, understand that we are talking about Self-Determination Theory. If you have questions or would like additional information on the concept or something discussed below, be sure to explore that theory. There is so much more to discover than what will be discussed here.

Many leadership professionals have probably heard about “Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose, thanks to Daniel Pink.” Essentially, Self-Determination Theory is what he’s talking about here. I like Daniel’s approach, and since more are likely familiar with his work over the theory itself, we’ll use his work as our starting point and foundation – and I will provide Daniel’s Ted Talk below for context. However, I will rearrange it to “Purpose, Mastery, and Autonomy” for our purposes here because I believe these are achieved in steps.

Before I get started, understand that a considerable amount of context goes into each of these. Also, know that each of the following headings only provides a piece of a much bigger puzzle. However, they will give some insight into why they are so effective and how they could be utilized.

For our discussion today, I will define each of these and then provide my thoughts and what it might look like. Know that what follows is my interpretation (and simplification) and that these can be modified to fit your needs.


  • the aim, intention, or goal of what an individual and/or organization is trying to accomplish.

As leaders, we must help individuals establish a solid reason to participate and work toward our vision. For example, generally speaking, a credit union’s purpose is to encourage members to save money and help fight against some of the practices of the big banks. Credit union employees educated on this idea often feel they are on the front line of that fight because they believe in that vision. As a result, they know and feel they play a crucial role in helping their members in that same fight. This creates a sense of relatedness to the organization, its employees, and its members.

Essentially, leaders provide employees with the “struggle” of the organization and the actual meaning of WHY our employees are in the struggle with us. Of course, this can take many forms, but knowing WHY we are doing something and how we fit in, helps to establish a greater sense of purpose on an individual level. This is to say that every organization can benefit greatly by spending some additional time to help employees establish that purpose and to help make their employees feel a greater sense of it.

Once a solid purpose (relatedness) has been established, we can move on to mastery.


  • the comprehensive and sound skill set or knowledge of a task.

Most employees enter our organizations needing to be trained and feeling a little behind. That’s perfectly normal, and that’s why we train them. However, any skilled professional dedicates a great deal of time to the mastery of their craft or trade. This is often called competence, and it usually requires additional training and education – both in and out of work.

As leaders, we are supposed to be helping our people master their craft or trade. That type of help often takes the form of additional training and one-on-one coaching. Frankly, anything leaders can do to aid in this endeavor (to build competence and mastery) is a wise investment.

Keeping in mind that the number one reason people stay with an organization is the opportunity for personal development, it behooves leaders to ensure that our people are continually learning, improving, and falling forward (learning from mistakes). Doing so makes our employees AND our organization more efficient, more valuable, and substantially more successful in the long run. However, the employee’s mastery is critical for us because when we task our people with something, we need to trust that they will get it done right and potentially improve current methods and previous outcomes.

Mastery is usually not something that is achieved overnight. Still, leaders need to be able to delegate appropriately. Delegating a task to someone requires that they get it at least 80% correct. Most organizations would prefer that percentage to be much higher. The pursuit of mastery improves that percentage substantially. Not only does mastery ensure the completion of delegated tasks, but it also builds a leader’s confidence and trust in the employee. However, and like anything worth doing, mastery often comes after training, a few mistakes, more coaching, and plenty of practice. Leaders should plan and act accordingly.

Then, when mastery is realized, greater autonomy can be provided. Something to note here is that Competence and Relatedness can also be achieved (to some degree) by using leadership methods such as the Validation Exchange. So with that being said, let’s take a look at autonomy.


  • the need to experience behavior as voluntary and “…reflectively self-endorsed” (to feel like we have control over what we do).

Autonomy is the final part of Self-Determination Theory. Together, these three (purpose, mastery, and autonomy) promote intrinsic motivations. However, autonomy is not something you throw out on day one, and it’s definitely not a starting point. Autonomy is earned, and providing various amounts for different employees is likely justified. Still, the thing to keep in mind is that autonomy is the exact opposite of micromanagement, which is an excellent benefit for leadership professionals. This is because it means that solid, organization-focused decisions (based on mastery) are being made and being made right, without the need for micromanagement or too much oversight. In other words, it means that the right things are being done right because they are the right things to do. It also means that the leader can handle bigger and better things and not worry about what has been delegated.

How autonomy looks often varies in the workplace. For some organizations, autonomy means employees are allowed to set their schedules. In other organizations, employees get to decide how their work gets done. In a few organizations, it means both. In fact, a few organizations have taken it a step further to allow employees to develop ideas and solutions with complete autonomy. The question might be, “why?” It’s because greater autonomy increases motivation levels and creativity. Both are desired by growing and thriving organizations. A simple cause-of-effect demonstrates higher engagement and greater returns.

Let’s be clear. If employees are trained and trusted to work on “their terms,” and when working for a purpose (struggle), they often achieve fantastic results. This works because they know they are part of something bigger than themselves and feel competent enough to get the job done. Best of all, they have the freedom and space to make it happen. However, this type of autonomy requires trust and solid communication skills from both the employee and the leader. The thing to remember here is that this type of relationship happens naturally (over time) as tasks are completed efficiently and with less and less guidance (due to mastery).

The hardest part for organizations seems to be breaking out of their 20th Century ways and embracing the idea that (logically speaking) it usually matters very little how, when, or where the work is being completed – as long as the work is being completed on time and to expectation. Still, no matter how one chooses to look at it, the science is clear: allowing your people the power and independence to take ownership of projects and tasks is a VERY good thing – and this is true whether they are working from their office or home. Studies repeatedly demonstrate that this type of environment results in greater engagement, higher accountability, a greater sense of value and well-being, motivation to learn new skills, much higher productivity and job satisfaction, a greater understanding of the team, and of course, a better work-life balance.

Do you agree? Is this something your organization can adopt? Before you decide, check out Daniel Pink’s Ted Talk and review some of the research I have provided below.

Daniel Pink does provide an excellent presentation and “case.”

Additional Literature to Consider