A business person looking disappointed

Horrible, No Good Bosses — The True Cost of Poor Leadership Blog #2: The Need for Autonomy

8 min. read

Master of Project Academy’s 8-part series Horrible Bosses, No Good Bosses: The True Cost of Poor Leadership was created to address the most common ways poor leadership results in flat/declining revenues and increased expenses. In this series, we will explore the topics of Communication, Networking, Emotional Intelligence, Leadership, Discipline, Teamwork, Adaptability, Conflict Resolution, Empathy, Positivity, Decisiveness, and Persuasion.

Marcus is new to his professional life and has just been hired into a Fortune 100 company with a really good salary and great benefits. He is excited beyond belief! He starts the job, and everything is going really well – especially that direct deposit he gets every other Friday.

Now, fast forward one year. On Sundays, Marcus begins to dread the next day. Each day drags on and seems longer than the previous one. He’s living for 5 pm on Friday, but he can’t quite put his finger on what has changed. The pay is great – so great that he’s already gotten a bonus and a 5% raise. The type of work he does is the same, the people he works with are nice, his boss is very clear about their expectations and how to get the work done, etc. Marcus really can’t figure out why the job makes him so unhappy. Wasn’t this the dream? Wasn’t this what he wanted? Well, it turns out the answer is actually, “yes” and “no.” He DOES want those things, but those things alone are not enough.

In this setting, calling Marcus’s boss “Horrible” is probably a bit unfair. He isn’t working for an ogre; he is simply working for someone who doesn’t understand the motivation. His boss provides extrinsic motivators while neglecting intrinsic ones. The employer is focusing on pay, bonuses, benefits, etc. These are things that can do a great job of bringing people in the door, but can they keep employees motivated? The answer, again, is both “yes” and “no.” These things won’t make someone leave, but they also won’t make someone stay. Put a different way, the absence of certain factors will result in an employee’s dissatisfaction but, when present, cannot result in their satisfaction. Think of extrinsic motivators as the foundational elements of a house. Without them, you can’t build anything else, but they aren’t enough to provide you a functioning home. Once the foundation is built, there is still work that needs to be done to build the rooms and turn the house into a home.

A motivated officeworker

What is Intrinsic Motivation?

In order to motivate employees, an employer must provide an environment in which one can experience intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from interest and enjoyment of the work. This type of motivation comes from work that employees enjoy, that provides a purpose, that stokes their curiosity, and/or they find fun.

Many organizational behavior professionals have researched this phenomenon and there are several theories that help to describe and explain it, but all of the theories can be boiled down to a basic premise. Employers must provide a baseline environment of safety, pay, benefits, etc. in order to attract and maintain employees, but much is required in addition to this. In order to keep their employees motivated, opportunities for employees to find intrinsic rewards in the work must be present.

Why Giving Autonomy to the Employees Is Important?

So, how do we do this? How do we ensure that we are setting our employees up for success, and thereby set our organizations up for success? There are dozens of elements employers can ensure are present, but we will narrow our focus to 4: Autonomy, Purpose, Growth, and Affiliation. For now, we will concentrate on Autonomy, and in upcoming blogs, we’ll cover Purpose, Growth, and Affiliation.

Giving employees a level of control over their work is a great way to provide opportunities for them to find intrinsic motivation. Have you ever worked for a micromanager? Did you enjoy it? Of course not!

So, why is it important to give our employees autonomy in their work? An HR Digest article breaks it down into 5 reasons:

  1. Increased Productivity,
  2. Improved Job Satisfaction,
  3. Improved Relationships with Customers,
  4. Culture of Trust, and
  5. Improved Retention Rates. ¹

These five reasons demonstrate the benefit to the employee AND to the employer. As a leader, few things sound better than a workplace where you have satisfied, productive workers who work well with your customers. Add in to that a positive working culture where you don’t have to spend hours and hours replacing your key employees and you have a recipe for meeting and exceeding your department’s goals.

What Are The Ways of Providing Autonomy?

We all want a degree of freedom in how it is we get our work done and effective leaders understand this. While we aren’t able to give our teams total independence and autonomy, there is always a level of which we can provide. The practical ways we can do this are outlined in a Culture Monkey article by Radhika. ²

  1. Effective Communication – leaders must communicate the organization’s strategic objectives to their teams. It is important that employees understand how their work fits into the big picture and affects their coworkers and customers.
  2. Seek Feedback – once the objectives are communicated, feedback from teams is requested. This is an opportunity to learn how the teams believe those objectives can be met, allow the teams to ask questions and gain deeper understandings, and allow the teams to design how they will complete the work.
  3. Stop Micromanaging – this is when the leaders must move from a “process” mindset to one of “deliverables.” What you, as the leader, must be most interested in is the final product that is delivered to you, and not each individual step taken to deliver the product. A Gartner study reported 9% of surveyed employees felt more productive when they were provided with less supervision. ³
  4. Recognize Efforts – this includes providing safe environments in which employees can fail. Celebrate the individual’s and team’s wins and demonstrate your appreciation for their efforts.

What Are The Benefits of Providing Autonomy?

As a leader, your responsibility is not solely to keep your employees motivated. You have an obligation to your organization to produce deliverables that help it achieve its strategic goals. Providing your employees with opportunities to be autonomous achieves both of these commitments. Doing this does not require you, as their leader, to give up all oversight over the teams. It simply requires creativity from you and the organization. If you are giving employees the benefit of flexible schedules, you would provide limits on the types of schedules available from which to choose. If you are giving employees autonomy in how they complete their work, you would provide deadlines, benchmarks, and other guardrails within which you would require them to work.

Two smiling business people giving a presentation in front of a whiteboard

There are legitimate reasons why organizations used to provide such strict structures for employees. One reason is the type of work being done. In an industrial or manufacturing job, following rigid processes is often necessary. Since many of us are now “knowledge workers,” we have opportunities to be more flexible in the “how” we do the work as long as the end result meets the objectives. I believe that the primary reason for sticking to strict structures is not about the type of work the employee needs to do, but instead, it is about the type of work the leader needs to do. Providing your employees with autonomy and addressing other areas that can result in intrinsic motivation, is much more complex than serving as “Department Dictator.” It requires nuance as you need to customize experiences for individual employees. It requires much more time to get to know your employees and ensure their needs are met than a managerial approach would require.

So why do we do it? That answer is two-fold.

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  1. Treating our employees well and providing them with the best environment for them to thrive is the right thing to do, and
  2. The results are increased productivity, increased creativity, and decreased costs.

This is backed by a lot of research, some of which is summarized below:

  • Engaged workers have 70% fewer safety incidents. ⁴
  • Health Care expenditures are around 50% greater in high-pressure companies. ⁵
  • Disengaged workers have⁵:
    • 37% higher absenteeism
    • 60% more errors and defects
    • 18% lower productivity
    • 16% lower profitability

These numbers lead one to believe that focusing on employee engagement, a large part of which is providing employee autonomy, is a worthwhile effort.

In our next Horrible Bosses Blog, No Good Bosses Blog “The Importance of Purpose,” we will continue our discussion on Intrinsic Motivators and will focus on how we can provide environments where our employees are able to find purpose in their work.

For more information on providing your leaders with Master of Project Academy’s Leadership Program, where your leaders will get instructive and hands-on training through interactive exercises, case studies, templates, and techniques that can be customized to your organization’s specific needs, click HERE


  1. What is job autonomy and why does it matter?
  2. Employee autonomy at work: The catalyst to effective employee engagement
  3. Digital Workers Say Flexibility Is Key to Their Productivity
  4. Engaged Workplaces Are Safer for Employees
  5. Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive

Sandra WorleyWritten by: Sandra Worley

Sandra Worley has over 25 years’ experience in project management and leadership positions and holds PMP, ScrumMaster, Scrum Product Owner, Six Sigma Green Belt and Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certifications. Her project management experience spans many industries and disciplines, including IT software and hardware, as well as construction.