One of the areas I have been reflecting on over the last few years is the gap between the amazing scientific research and huge volumes of academic studies that are being undertaken to try and improve the workplace and employee experience, and the actual activity that happens within organisations.
As a seasoned HR and OD practitioner, and Chartered Fellow of the CIPD, I spent many years reading the same old sources for ideas that would improve the employee experience particularly in the organisational development field. The great thing about social media is that we have been able to easily expand our research and access an even broader range of ideas. But I soon realised that many of the ideas I was interested in and that were being endorsed as good HR or management practice, actually had very little substance or real empirical evidence behind them.
It has become all too easy for us practitioners to glibly say that ‘engagement is a must’, or we should ‘change the culture’ but without truly understanding what some of these concepts mean or even what actually can be proven to work in organisations. I don’t have the answer to how we bridge the gap between academic study results and actual practice in the workplace. The compulsory reading of Journal articles may take it too far! But over the last few years I have gone all out to try and ensure that any practice I recommend has proven evidence of it benefiting and working, for the organisation and the employee.
One such area is that of autonomy in the workplace – the ability for us to shape our own working environment and conditions so that they allow us to perform at our very best.
Some of you readers may know it’s a real interest of mine. So much so, that I spent some months researching this area in a Government Department in 2018. The results were statistically significant – autonomy in the workplace can take an engaged employee work rate and performance to even higher levels.
So, whether you prescribe to Deci and Ryan’s Self Determination Theory (2000 – Autonomy Competence, Relatedness) http://selfdeterminationtheory.org/ or prefer Dan Pink’s reinterpretation in his 2009 book, Drive (Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose), I was at least able to add my own little piece of proven empirical evidence that facilitating autonomy makes a very real difference to employees and their performance.
So, how do you enable this? Surely it is as simple as enabling the employee voice; creating opportunities for employees to determine ‘how’ they will work and ‘what’ they will work on; looking closely at your job design to see if there is unnecessary control and hierarchy that can be reduced or removed; great quality conversations about goals and creating an environment of trust? Well if it was only that easy!
Recently I’ve been lucky enough to work with two teams who have been courageous enough to be self-directing. By this I mean, they are self-managing; completely autonomous. No hierarchy, no team plans, no core office times, no rules. What was fascinating is that both were delivering and that both were full of contented and enthused employees. But I was asked to see whether I could help facilitate even better performance.
What was clear from our early debates and discussions, is that it quickly emerged what autonomy ‘is not’! There can be many frustrations working in a completely autonomous environment and the teams confirmed that it should not mean working in isolation; it is not doing what you like, when you like because it suits only you and it is not working without skills, support or a safety net.
The great thing about self-directing teams and fully autonomous working environments is the amazing potential for choice and choice can enable our autonomous motivation. But with choice comes great responsibility!
I will cut a long story very short, when I say that both teams benefited from revisiting their core purpose. When everyone agreed and understood their ‘Why?’, everyone was clear about the part they could play. Both teams also ended up agreeing to creating some freedom and decision-making boundaries, some team behaviours and a re-introduction of team and individual goal setting.
Goal setting is another well researched area that has lost its way in the gap between the empirical studies, academic journals and organisation and HR practice. The setting of agreed, challenging goals facilitates pride in accomplishment (Locke and Latham 1991) and both teams are working on getting this practice right as a way of supporting (not diluting) individual autonomy.
I’d love to hear your views on autonomy in the workplace and even better – what are you doing to facilitate it?
Sally is a Business psychologist and Organisational Development Consultant