The Importance of Autonomy at Work

Two points of inspiration came for this post: 1) an article in Psychology Today and 2) a conversation with a friend.

The cover story of this month’s issue of Psychology Today is What Happy People Do Differently. Talk of happiness is of big interest in today’s world. Books like The Happiness Project get a lot of hype and new, edgy companies like Holstee speak to our inner desire to take charge of our life and be happy. What I enjoyed about this article was that unlike a lot of the chatter, it seemed to be more grounded, “we don’t deny the importance of happiness—but we’ve also concluded that a well-lived life is more than just one in which you feel “up.” The good life is best construed as a matrix that includes happiness, occasional sadness, a sense of purpose, playfulness, and psychological flexibility, as well autonomy, mastery, and belonging.”

Next came a conversation with a friend about my job. While in school, I work part time at Whole Foods. This friend, older than me, worked at a grocery store when he was younger. He asked me, “do you cashier the whole time or do you get to move around and do other things too?” This caught me off guard as my job title is cashier. I dug deeper: he worked at a small locally owned store with few employees. During his shifts he had the autonomy to stock shelfs, cashier and do what needed to be done – he was not hired into a specific position but rather as an employee to do what was needed. As it turns out, this variety is generally more fulfilling. Most of us inherently know something like this from our own personal experience.

Management generally seeks organization in which people are hired into specific roles to do specific things. But, again generally speaking, people tend to be happier with their work when there is autonomy to step outside of a job description. I see this at Mozilla where people will be working on a projects outside of their normal day-to-day job requirements – not because it’s insidious but because they want to. This is a good sign. In order for people to stay motivated and excited about their job they must have the ability to venture into new territory, take ownership and feel empowered to make decisions. Thankfully, many companies, especially technology, design their organization with this in mind. From a management perspective, I wonder how the average organization, like Whole Foods, might be designed differently to allow more autonomy. Further, I wonder how the organization could quantify and ensure autonomy so as to avoid talking a talk it does not walk. It’s easy to fall into mediocrity.

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