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Giving employees autonomy: like giving chocolate?

Lieke Weterings, Ninja Expert

30 November 2018

When you open a modern management book about motivation, you’re often overloaded with the idea that giving employees more autonomy in their work will lead to a higher job satisfaction and a better, overall performance.

But is that really true? Is giving autonomy to employees really the reason for a happy and high-performing workforce? And why in the world would it be like giving chocolate?

Bad stories, big results

The books that put autonomy on a pedestal use stories of people having a job with very little variation in tasks. They have nothing to say with regards to company decisions that have to be made. Not even the minor ones.

To me, this sounds extremely boring. Devastating even. So of course I can imagine that giving people more autonomy in making decisions in these situations, will actually lead to a higher satisfaction with work. Above all, a happy cow produces more milk… 

But what about the other jobs? Where people already have some power to influence their work and leadership decisions. Like most jobs.

Is it really that beneficial to allow employees higher levels of autonomy there? Or is this just a myth and should the decision-making mainly be left to leaders alone?

Is giving employees autonomy like giving chocolate?

Photograph by Rawpixel via Pexels

The answer is in our brains

Allowing people to have more autonomy in their work is followed immediately by processes that could be detected in the brain. To follow these processes, we should take a closer look at the parts of the brain that work together to create a certain reward system.

Brain research shows that this reward system of the brain is more active when autonomy is included in our tasks compared to tasks with little autonomy. In other words, giving employees more autonomy in their work results in a feeling of reward.

In fact, if you study what happens in the brain, it looks a lot like getting chocolate! And we all work better with a piece of chocolate, right?

“When we look at what happens in the brain, giving employees autonomy is a lot like giving them chocolate”

Do try this at home!

The point of this new knowledge is clear: all leaders should make sure their employees get a sufficient amount of autonomy. Because they will feel rewarded and that will even motivate them further to keep up the good work.

So what if you ever have the feeling that not all employees are happy in their work? Stop simplifying their work, involve them in decisions! Do try this ‘at home’ and you will see. 

Lieke is Ninja Expert at Ninjafy with a deep passion for human behaviour and helping others to make people love their work. Connect with her on LinkedIn

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