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Research Says This Is the Secret to Being Happy at Work

It's the autonomy, stupid. Employers tend throw money at morale problems, but workers really want freedom from micromanagement.

Smiling male shop owner looking away in doorway :: This content is subject to copyright. / This content is subject to copyright.
One of the true secrets to employee happiness is a sense of autonomy in daily operations. | This content is subject to copyright.
One of the true secrets to employee happiness is a sense of autonomy in daily operations. | Hero Images | Getty Images

Every business owner, manager and supervisor in the country wants to keep their employees happy — but it’s not as straightforward as it sounds.

According to a Gallup poll, only about 30 percent of workers feel actively engaged or connected to their workplace, and low morale costs businesses anywhere from $450 billion to $550 billion per year. Unhappy, disengaged workers are more likely to be absent, more likely to take sick days, are less productive and are more prone to leaving prematurely.

But what are the root causes of low employee morale? Some employers think it’s all about money; they throw salary raises and cash bonuses at their employees to improve morale. And while that might be cause for temporary satisfaction, consistent raises may actually decrease morale and productivity, making employees complacent in a predictable environment where performance means little.

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Instead, new research shows that one of the true secrets to employee happiness and well being is an acute sense of autonomy in daily operations.

Unhappy, disengaged workers are more likely to be absent, more likely to take sick days, are less productive and are more prone to leaving prematurely.

Defining Employee Autonomy

What do we mean by “autonomy”? These are some of the most important characteristics:

  • Making decisions. Autonomous workers are able to make decisions for themselves, without the need to run every decision “up the ladder” or submit it to a committee. This makes workers feel more in control, especially over their own responsibilities, and less subject to the direction of others.
  • Contributing ideas. When employees feel like their ideas and contributions matter, they’re willing to contribute more frequently, and with more effort. Google famously took advantage of this by sponsoring employee passion projects, and many businesses have followed in its footsteps.
  • Operating with limited supervision. Supervision is good, and necessary in some applications, but micromanagement makes employees feel small and distrusted. Autonomy trusts workers to accomplish their goals without much intervention.
  • Determining responsibilities. Autonomy also affords workers some degree of determining their own responsibilities. For example, they may be able to delegate some of their responsibilities as they see fit, or may be able to choose their own schedules.

The Evidence

Researchers from the University of Birmingham recently studied 2 years’ worth of data on 20,000 workers to determine the effects of autonomy on employee morale and well being. Generally, the higher levels of autonomy a worker experienced, the higher their sense of job satisfaction and well being — though there were some differences along gender lines. For example, women appreciated autonomy as it related to scheduling and location flexibility, while men appreciated autonomy as it related to task allocation and pace of work. There were also significant differences in preference across occupational lines.

Unsurprisingly, managerial and supervisory positions held the highest levels of autonomy among workers polled. About half of unskilled or low-skilled workers reported no sense of autonomy whatsoever.

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Further Benefits

Giving employees more autonomy comes with benefits beyond simply raising morale. When businesses enable workers to set their own goals, choose their own schedules and hold themselves accountable for their own work, they cut back on management and leadership roles, saving money and improving efficiency. Plus, when you consider that half of workers who quit do so because of bad bosses, the move may simultaneously improve employee retention (on top of the improvement you’d see from higher morale).

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Instituting More Autonomy

Knowing this, how can businesses and managers incorporate more autonomy into a work environment with a static infrastructure?

These are some strategies to get you going:

  • Introduce autonomy as a reward. For starters, businesses can start introducing elements of autonomy as a reward to their employees for achieving a goal or exceeding expectations. For example, a manager may allow her top-performing workers to set their own hours (within reason).
  • Cut back on micromanagement. Micromanagement isn’t just annoying; it’s destructive. Micromanaging employees forces them to change their natural working style, and interferes with both their productivity and job enjoyment.
  • Seek employee insights. Remember, autonomy preferences differ based on occupation, gender and other factors. Businesses should ask their employees about what types of autonomy they’d like to see in the future, and learn from that feedback.
  • Scale gradually. Organizations don’t have to fundamentally change overnight. They can start with small changes, and escalate them gradually.

Businesses don’t need to give their employees unlimited freedom to help them feel more autonomous. Even small, simple changes can make a big difference in how employees perceive their roles within a company.

Businesses that invest in autonomy have happier, healthier employees who are more willing to work hard for their organization. It’s time more businesses followed suit.

Jayson DeMers is the founder & CEO of AudienceBloom, a Seattle-based content marketing & social media agency. You can contact him on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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