What is “autonomy” in the workplace context?

Jason Yip
2 min readFeb 18, 2019

When we consider “autonomy” in the workplace context, it’s useful to think about it in two ways:

  1. The specific psychological meaning associated with intrinsic motivation;
  2. As a tactic to improve the speed of decision-making through decentralisation.

Autonomy for intrinsic motivation

From Self-Determination Theory, there are certain features associated with autonomy-supported intrinsic motivation:

  • Feeling that your perspective has been considered
  • Being offered meaningful choice
  • Being provided relevant information
  • Being given rationale
  • Having your feelings acknowledged
  • No controlling language or attitudes

Specifically, the concept of autonomy associated with intrinsic motivation is not equivalent to “do whatever you feel like”.

Self-Determination Theory identifies three main factors that contribute to intrinsic motivation:

  • autonomy;
  • competence;
  • relatedness.

Recognising all three factors, the “autonomy” feeling we should be looking for is not “do whatever you feel like” but rather something more like feeling free to act, using all of your capabilities, towards contributing to a shared outcome.

Thanks to The Art of Action (with a nice illustration from Henrik Kniberg), there is a simple expression for this kind of autonomy we want: “aligned autonomy”.

Autonomy for faster decision-making

Autonomy for faster decision-making has to do with recognising the delay inherent to centralised decision-making.

The time it takes to both make and act upon decisions is proportional to the distance between where the action is happening and where the decision is made.

To illustrate, let’s examine the scenario where there is a central decision-maker and another group of people on the front-lines. When something happens, time to act on a decision = time for the information to be sent from the front-line to the central decision-maker + time for the decision to be made + time for the decision to be sent back to the front-line + time to act.

Centralised decision-making is slower.

Alternatively, with decentralised decision-making, time to act on a decision = time for the decision to be made + time to act.

Decentralised decision-making is faster.

In other words, if the people closest to the action make the decisions, the decisions will be made and acted upon faster.

However, certain factors need to be in play to ensure decentralised decisions are effective:

  • Clarity of organisational intent (aka alignment).
  • Similar decision logic (aka doctrine).
  • Technical competence.

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Jason Yip

Senior Manager Product Engineering at Grainger. Extreme Programming, Agile, Lean guy. Ex-Spotify, ex-ThoughtWorks, ex-CruiseControl