The Blog

Tempted to Leave Your Job? Maybe You Need More Autonomy at Work.

I'm particularly interested in autonomy, the need people have to choose and be in control of the things they do. In the workplace, this means a sense of ownership over tasks.

The holidays are well and truly over, and you've had chance to rest and recharge. Now you're back at the workplace, your boss assumes you'll be refreshed and committed to your job... but maybe they're wrong. January is the busiest time of the year for recruitment websites, with 7th January being the peak day for job applications in 2013. It's common for people to reassess their lives over the holidays and look to move on, and dissatisfaction can be compounded by waiting for the first post-holiday pay cheque. Taking all this into account, it's vital that employers avoid complacency and make a concerted effort to give employee morale a boost as the New Year begins.

One factor surely has to be paying a Living Wage, something I spoke about last time. But equally important is that bosses meet the psychological needs of employees. This piece about motivation from the Harvard Business Review suggests that there are three core needs human beings have - autonomy, relatedness and competence. I'm particularly interested in autonomy, the need people have to choose and be in control of the things they do. In the workplace, this means a sense of ownership over tasks. Author Dan Pink echoed this in his TED talk, The Puzzle of Motivation.

In this article from Entrepreneur, the author explains how to foster a 'culture of ownership' within a business, and the key point for me is this: "Ownership isn't assigned or given, ownership is taken." In other words, everyone decides for themselves - within the parameters of the business - what they're going to do, and how they're going to do it.

This ownership culture is something I foster at my company, The Clean Space. I'd like to share three key questions that have worked for me in fostering autonomy, and that you should be hearing from your employer as 2015 begins.

1. "Who do you want to be this year?" In other words, what are your core values? This question forces people to think about what's important to them, and articulate what they really value. It's important that you come up with values yourself and that you're able to commit to behaviours associated with them, as this makes them concrete. For example, my employees have told me they want to be reliable, and that this means turning up on time, doing what you say you're going to do and saying 'no' if you don't think you can deliver.

2. "What do you want to achieve this year?" Your boss should want to know where you think the opportunities are for you to add value, and what you want to achieve within this. At The Clean Space, staff set their own objectives at the beginning of the year and these are linked to their annual bonus.

3. "How can I help you achieve this?" A manager's job is to provide the correct environment, resources and support to help you achieve your goals. I ask my employees what they need, then give them the space they need to deliver while making sure I'm on hand to help if required.

The above approach has helped to increase engagement and a sense of autonomy among my employees, meaning that the people who work for me want to stick around - my turnover was only 13% in 2014.

Evidence from other companies backs up my experience. Atlassian, an Australian software company, has one full day every quarter where staff are fully left to their own devices to work on whatever they feel is most important. The company calls this ShipIt Day, and it has led to increased innovation and employee satisfaction. It has been so successful that other companies now sign up to it, such as American consulting company Six Feet Up. This article from Inc also describes how an on-demand moving company called Bellhops has grown its workforce by fostering autonomy and letting employees choose the jobs that suit them.

A study from Cornell University (PDF) in the US quantifies experiences like these - in a study of over 300 small businesses, researchers found that companies which gave staff autonomy grew four times faster and had a third of the staff turnover than companies which exercised a more traditional 'command and control' management style.

It seems very clear that increasing employee autonomy is a technique that is good for people and therefore good for business, as the two go hand in hand. If your workplace wants to keep you, they ought to be encouraging a sense of ownership and motivating you to commit to your organisation. But if they seem stuck in old-fashioned authoritarian ways, perhaps it is time to join the January recruitment rush after all.