The Autonomy Factor

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Studies by Steven Maier at the University of Boulder show that the degree of control available to an animal confronted by stressful situations determines whether or not that stressor undermines the ability to function. Similarly, in an organization, as long as people feel they can execute their own decisions without much oversight, stress remains under control. Because human brains evolved in response to stressors over thousands of years, they are constantly attuned, usually at a subconscious level, to the ways in which social encounters threaten or support the capacity for choice.

A perception of reduced autonomy — for example, because of being micromanaged — can easily generate a threat response. When an employee experiences a lack of control, or agency, his or her perception of uncertainty is also aroused, further raising stress levels. By contrast, the perception of greater autonomy increases the feeling of certainty and reduces stress.

Leaders who want to support their people’s need for autonomy must give them latitude to make choices, especially when they are part of a team or working with a supervisor. Presenting people with options, or allowing them to organize their own work and set their own hours, provokes a much less stressed response than forcing them to follow rigid instructions and schedules. In 1977, a well-known study of nursing homes by Judith Rodin and Ellen Langer found that residents who were given more control over decision making lived longer and healthier lives than residents in a control group who had everything selected for them. The choices themselves were insignificant; it was the perception of autonomy that mattered.

Another study, this time of the franchise industry, identified work–life balance as the number one reason that people left corporations and moved into a franchise. Yet other data showed that franchise owners actually worked far longer hours (often for less money) than they had in corporate life. They nevertheless perceived themselves to have a better work–life balance because they had greater scope to make their own choices. Leaders who know how to satisfy the need for autonomy among their people can reap substantial benefits — without losing their best people to the entrepreneurial ranks.

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