Why Autonomy Is Important for Peak Performance

min read

Joan F. Cheverie is Manager, Professional Development Programs, EDUCAUSE.

Sarah’s boss has just told her that her unit is responsible for developing a new, high-profile project. She feels really good because it’s just like the successful project she was a part of in her previous job, plus it’s one of the first significant tasks that her boss has given her as a new manager. Sarah’s staff is excellent but fairly inexperienced, and her boss has set a tight deadline. She doesn’t see these as problems because she has the experience to help the team. She lays out a very detailed plan for her team members. She’s pleased because it’s so detailed that their inexperience won’t be a problem: all they have to do is execute. Yet as time goes on, the work isn’t unfolding according to her plan. The team isn’t meeting deadlines, and they seem to be unmotivated. Sarah assumes that they must need more help from her. She begins to press and give more and more details. Still, there’s not a lot of progress. She is now spending almost all her time doing their work to meet the deadline, and she’s extremely frustrated. Sarah can’t understand why this otherwise high-performing team seems so unmotivated and uninspired. She resents that they don’t just follow her plan and trust her experience. What’s wrong here?

            The problem is that Sarah is so prescriptive in directing her staff to complete the job that the team probably feels smothered. In an earnest and well-meaning effort to help the staff, Sarah has instead demotivated them. How did this happen? In short, the team has been given no autonomy to complete their work. This is a mistake (mostly an unconscious one) that inexperienced managers often make (well, probably more experienced ones too, unfortunately). Managers develop a wealth of expertise and experience. However, one of the first lessons a successful manager and future leader needs to learn is to let go of the details and focus on the higher goals of the department and the organization. In other words, managers need to learn how to delegate and to give their team autonomy over its work.

What Is Autonomy, and Why Is It Important to Success?

Autonomy is people’s need to perceive that they have choices, that what they are doing is of their own volition, and that they are the source of their own actions. The way managers and leaders frame information and situations either promotes the likelihood that a person will perceive autonomy or undermines it.1

            If you are a new manager, you need to recognize that your job is now managing people, not tasks. You must work through others to get the job done. This is the point where you stop telling your staff how to do their job and, instead, set the strategic direction, deadlines, and benchmarks and then allow them to determine how to accomplish the job.

            The second thing to recognize is your own personal preference for how to work. You undoubtedly have developed a lot of subject and technical expertise, as well as your own style of getting the job done. Now you’ve got a team (made up of unique individuals) whose members have their own personal working style—which may not mesh with how you’ve always successfully done your work. That, however, doesn’t mean that their way is wrong. While your hard-earned expertise and knowledge have gotten you to where you are today (and probably is something you still enjoy doing), to be a successful manager and leader, you now need to step back and delegate that work to the team. And believe me, it can be tough to let go of something that you’re good at and that you find rewarding. You’re now the coach who provides the overall plan and the tools to those who are directly working on the project. Giving staff the autonomy to do the work their way within the overall strategy you set is the foundation for building a high-performing team.

            Another key point to recognize is that inexperienced managers (and some experienced ones too) are sometimes insecure about giving up control. The manager’s own feelings of identity are closely tied to his/her accumulated expertise and knowledge. Being able to trust others to do the job their way and still get it done can be a hard, but extremely important, lesson to learn.

            Autonomy, in other words, is the antithesis of micromanagement (as we saw in the opening scenario). Instead of focusing on the minute details, you now need to direct your focus to the goals and strategic objectives for each staff member. Let them take care of the minor details of meeting those expectations. If you are able to create autonomy while holding people accountable for stated goals and objectives, you’ll find that the details get done without your having to worry about them.

            You want your staff to live up to their full potential. Telling them what to do, how to do it, and when to do it “because you said so” is not a recipe for long-term success. Yes, you will get short-term results, but this style of leadership is not sustainable. Ideally, you want the members of your team to see that the goals they are pursuing have real value. In fact, you want them to make the goals their own—and with good reason. Studies show that the greatest motivation and personal satisfaction comes from those goals that we choose for ourselves. Self-chosen goals create a specific kind of motivation called intrinsic motivation – the desire to do something for its own sake.2 When people are intrinsically motivated, they find greater enjoyment in what they are doing, they are more engaged with their work, and they have higher job satisfaction. They are also more persistent in the face of difficulty. In other words, they perform better and exercise their potential. You’ll also discover an added benefit: higher retention rates.

Why Is Autonomy Important at Work?

Although we may not think about it often, everyone experiences the workplace as a social system. “People who feel betrayed or unrecognized at work,” says Dr. David Rock, President of the NeuroLeadership Institute, “experience it as a neural impulse, as powerful and painful as a blow to the head.” He goes on to say that employees tend to limit their commitment and engagement if they feel undervalued. “They become purely transactional employees, reluctant to give more of themselves to the company, because the social context stands in their way.”3 This type of situation can be the root cause of a low-performing team. Think about times that you have been part of such a team. It quickly demotivates everyone, plus rectifying the situation is very difficult once it takes hold. Your managerial challenge is to provide conditions where such a situation is less likely to happen, and giving the team a measure of autonomy in how to carry out their work is key.

As you noticed in the introductory scenario, Sarah’s team was merely going through the motions of tackling the project. They had become those transactional employees. Motivation and innovation come out of enthusiasm and passion, and new ideas spring from an eagerness to improve processes. A good leader understands this correlation and works to draw out the talent of staff members by giving them the independence to solve problems and to bring new ideas to the table.

A Few Tips to Get Started

Your staff needs to understand why the goal they’ve been assigned has value. Too often managers tell their team members what they need to do without taking the time to explain why it’s important or how it fits into the bigger institutional picture. Rarely does anyone really commit to a goal if he/she doesn’t see why it’s desirable to do so in the first place. Don’t assume that the why is as obvious to your team as it is to you. Remember, you sit higher in the organizational schema and have a broader view than your staff, and they need you to provide context. Frame goals as essential information to ensure everyone’s success, not as orders to hold people accountable.

  • Rather than micromanaging each task, spell out what the end result should be. Set expectations while giving employees the latitude to decide for themselves how to tackle the problem to meet those expectations. Allowing members of your team to decide how they will accomplish the task creates the feeling of choice that is necessary to be intrinsically motivated. Giving them the freedom and the choice to shape their approach to suit their preferences and abilities will also give them a heightened sense of control over the situation and contributes positively to overall performance. 
  • Be sure to meaningfully recognize your team’s efforts. Everybody wants to be appreciated for his/her contribution. The sense that one is responsible for making decisions—and the ability to stand behind those decisions when given a task—drives involvement, often leads to innovation, and definitely increases job satisfaction. A balance of individual autonomy and a manager’s guidance and recognition is the ideal formula for maximizing employees’ potential, satisfaction, and performance. 


In short, how can you create a greater sense of autonomy in your workplace? To bring out the best in your staff, utilize their power. Set the goal and trust your team to figure out how to get the work done, and you will be rewarded with engaged, high-performing staff who probably have introduced some innovative ideas along the way. An additional benefit? You’ll be known as a good leader.


1. Susan Fowler, “What Maslow’s Hierarchy Won’t Tell You about Motivation,” Harvard Business Review, November 26, 2014.

2. Heidi Grant Halvorson, “How to Give Employees a Sense of Autonomy (When You Are Really Calling the Shots),” Forbes, September 15, 2011.

3. David Rock, Josh Davis, and Beth Jones, “Kill Your Performance Ratings,” strategy+business, August 8, 2014.