Working Human: Autonomy Leads to Employee Engagement

February 12, 2020 Sharlyn Lauby

3-minute read

Daniel Pink’s book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” is one of those books that every business professional needs on their bookshelf. Don’t let the 2009 publication date fool you into thinking this book is out of date. Quite the opposite. The book provides a foundation for working more human through three essential elements:

  1. Purpose is about understanding the company’s mission, vision, and values. It’s about how employees connect with the organization.
  2. Mastery tells us what employees need in terms of tools and training to do their jobs. In addition, it reminds us what employees will need when it’s time to learn new knowledge and skills.
  3. Autonomy is focused on whether the organization gives employees the ability and freedom to get the job done. Employees need to feel confident and comfortable doing this.

In thinking about these three elements, I’m sure many organizations understand purpose and mastery. The organization has a mission and they recruit, engage, and retain employees to turn that mission into reality.

The element of autonomy is harder. Organizations can’t simply wave a magic wand and say, “Poof! You’re autonomous now!” For employees to be truly autonomous, we need to ask ourselves: How do we teach autonomy? And how do we give employees the skills to be autonomous?

In “Drive,” Daniel shares several concepts that can help organizations build autonomy into their culture. Here are four that resonated with me:

1. Pay people internally equitable and externally competitive. Let’s address the elephant in the room. If we ask any employee if they’d like more money, many most everyone will say “yes.” This doesn’t mean money is always a primary motivator. Organizations do need to pay employees well – not as a catalyst for engagement, but to prevent money from becoming a reason for disengagement.

2. Help employees find their “flow.” The concept of “flow” was introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s. It’s defined as a mental state of being that helps employees become their most productive.  Think of it as being in the zone. If organizations want employees to focus on getting the job done and accomplishing goals, they need to create workplaces where employees don’t have to worry about the small stuff. Organizations need to let employees find their flow.

3. Allow employees to have work-life balance. Regardless of what you call it, employees perform better when they feel they can have both a personal and professional life. This isn’t to say an employee won’t ever stay late, take work home, or work on the weekend. It means employees are willing to give more when they know they can also attend their kid’s soccer game, have a guilt-free date night with their partner, or be a caregiver to an older relative.

4. Recognize employees for their contributions. I’ve said it many times. “No news is good news” isn’t a recognition program. Managers and co-workers should recognize the hard work of others in a timely fashion using a specific message. And it’s perfectly OK (and highly recommended) to recognize employees for “doing their job” well.

Employees can become autonomous when they know what the company’s purpose is and they have the tools to do their job well. It’s not simply doing the job. Autonomy is about high performance and helping the organization achieve its strategic goals. Organizations can support employee autonomy by using the strategies of paying competitively, helping employees become productive, giving their people balance, and recognizing a job well done.

About the Author

Sharlyn Lauby

Sharlyn Lauby is author of HR Bartender blog and president at ITM Group, Inc.

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