Workers who feel they're free to make their own decisions are happier and more productive according to recent academic findings. Researchers found that autonomy, or the ability to make choices in the workplace and be held accountable for them, is a huge determiner of job satisfaction.
"The perception of autonomy has very positive effects on workers," says Marylène Gagné, of Concordia University's John Molson School of Business and co-author of Human Autonomy in Cross-Cultural Context: Perspectives on the Psychology of Agency, Freedom, and Well-Being (Springer).
"However, managers can't simply export North American methods of granting autonomy anywhere and expect them to work." What people from one culture perceive as workplace freedom, those from another may view as simple disorganization.
No single definition of freedom
Autonomy can take many different forms. Organizations may let employees set their own schedules, choose how to do their work or even elect to work from home. No matter how autonomy is defined, when people feel they have latitude the results are impressive. Potential benefits include greater employee commitment, better performance, improved productivity and lower turnover.
"Autonomy is especially likely to lead to better productivity when the work is complex or requires more creativity," says Gagné. "In a very routine job, autonomy doesn't have much impact on productivity, but it can still increase satisfaction, which leads to other positive outcomes. When management makes decisions about how to organize work, they should always think about the effect on people's autonomy."
Paradoxically, some employers are now actually reducing workers' autonomy by monitoring behavior on workplace computers, or even on the phone or in the car. It's another reason, says Gagné, why cartoons like Dilbert are so popular. "They strike a responsive chord in many people because they show what the work environment has become for some individuals," she says.