Autonomy or Automatons? How perceived autonomy predicts worker well-being

The conflict between the bourgeois and the proletariat (read the employer and employee) is to some degree evidenced by a simple fact of being;

People do not like being told what to do.

From the four-year old throwing a tantrum after being told to do their chores, to the executive director who is instructed by their board to scrap a project, people just do not like being told what to do.

The thing is though, people do not like being told what to do, however, if they feel they still have a say in how, where and when the task is completed, the picture starts to change a little bit. Or at least that is what research by Kukita, Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi (2022) has found.

Let’s take a moment and go back to our four-year old mentioned above. If the child’s parent tells them to do their chores now, the child’s perceived level of autonomy in the task is reduced. Simply put, the child holds the perception that in addition to having to do something undesirable, they have little autonomy in how or when this is to be done. The result being a four-year old who sees no meaningful option but to express (perhaps quite loudly) their protest at the perceived injustice.

Okay, so you might now be thinking, ‘but hang on, part of the article title speaks to autonomy and worker well-being, what does a four-year old have to do with all this?’

Good question. Research by Ryan et al. (2010) investigated the ‘what’ versus the ‘why’ of work tasks and momentary mood, and found that whilst work-related activities can be accompanied by lower momentary mood than non-work activities (think binge watching series), the experienced level of autonomy by the worker fully mediated the relationship between work-task and mood (and here is the important bit) more so than the type of activity being engaged in.

In essence then, what this is saying to us is, worker wellbeing or mood is not as dependent on the type of task being requested of them, but is rather a product of the degree to which they feel they have autonomy in carrying out that task. In short then, being a micromanager, whilst great for containing the anxiety of the supervisor/manager, is incredibly erosive for worker experience of autonomy, and consequentially, well-being.

So, whether it is a four-year old being told to do their chores, or an executive director being told to drop a project, the common denominator is that something (read a work task) has to be done. The difficulty is then not so much with the task per se, but rather with the degree to which the four-year old or executive director think they have the ability to exercise their personal valence in carrying the task out.

Getting back to the research by Kukita and Collegues (2022), findings indicate that momentary affect or mood in an activity was only significantly predicted by how autonomously motivated the participant was, irrespective of whether that activity was work, study, play or rest. Basically, what this tells us is; as long as a person feels autonomously motivated in what they are doing, the actual activity itself has little to no bearing on their consequent mood.

Back to our four-year old. Same instruction as before, do your chores, but this time, the parent indicates to the child that they can choose when to do the chores, in what order, and (if the child can convince them) with their friends if they so wish, just as long as the chores are complete by the end of the week. The simple addition of choice here creates the conditions for perceived autonomy, it does not matter if the child chooses to do a last-minute dash to complete their chores, systematically divides them up over the course of the week, or does a ‘Dennis the Menace’ and convinces their friends to paint the fence for them. What matters is that the child will now more easily engage with the chores, as they have perceived choice and autonomy.

At this point, you may well be thinking to yourself, okay, this is all good and fine, but at the outset of the article, you said that people do not like being told what to do, so surely that alone would be a powerful corroder of perceived autonomy?

Another good question. Kukita and Colleagues (2022) findings further indicate that irrespective of what people do, their engagement in the activity is increased by perceived autonomy, but they do not need to feel completely autonomous to remain engaged in the task. In other words, yes, being told what to do does detract from our perception of autonomy, however, as long as we feel we still have some measure of autonomy in what has to get done, it does not matter that the task is being extrinsically motivated. So, what then does this mean for people-and-management practice?

  1. First of all, as a general rule of thumb, micromanaging people is a sure-fire means of destroying perceived autonomy. This is not to say that you should go to the opposite end of the spectrum and become lassis-faire either, it is about finding meaningful balance between providing your people with clear instruction, and giving them the space, resources and discretion to get on with it.
  2. Secondly, in order to allow your people to feel safe in exploring their perceived autonomy, it is important to explicitly state your trust in their ability to get the job done, whilst providing some measure of structure in terms of resources, time and the like. The key here is that your people should know you are there to support them, but you trust them to do their work best, whilst providing them with appropriate boundaries in terms of time, space and resources.
  3. Thirdly, if things go wrong, attempt to resist the desire to immediately correct the situation, or take over from your subordinates. Yes, there are instances where this is unavoidable, however, for the most part, if circumstances allow for it, let your people figure out the best way out of the problem situation or snag. Showing your people that you are available to support them, and are empathetic to their difficulties, whilst demonstrating that you continue to trust in their capacities, is an essential litmus test in their exploration of personal autonomy, and their trust in your being there to support them.

If you are looking for a tailor made, people development solution, reach out to psyQ Consulting today and book your first, free, 1 hour consultation and needs assessment.

References & Further Reading

Kukita, A., Nakamura, J., Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2022). How experiencing autonomy contributes to a good life. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 17(1), pp. 34-45