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If you’ve ever been on a hike and got that annoying little bit of grit in your shoe you’ll know it gets more and more difficult to ignore it because all you can think about it that wretched piece of grit. Ultimately you decide enough! So you stop, take off your boot and shake out that darned pebble.

But what if you can’t? Your hike master reminds you have another 25 kms to go and there’s no time to dawdle for something as insignificant as removing that small piece of grit, and they are watching you to ensure you keep up. Over the next 25 kms not only is that piece of grit going to feel like a massive rock; you can’t enjoy the walk anymore because your foot is hurting and all you want to do is go home.

Knowing we can exert control over what’s happening in our environment matters. It matters to our well-being, to how well we handle stress and it matters big time to our performance.

Which is why having a sense of autonomy at work is so important.

In the 2012 Talent Edge Study, Deloitte identified 5 critical factors that influence staff retention rates, one of which was the degree a person is given autonomy to do their work.

Do you remember the time you learned to ride a bike? It’s hard at first and then with practice we get better at it and before long we are peddling away delighted in our own ability to master a new skill.

Imagine then if your parents had refused to let you ride without your trainer wheels or insisted on walking alongside you, making you pedal really slowly so they are happy you are doing it right.

One of my close friends was a senior manager for a global Pharma company. Following relocation to a different office she found herself under micromanagement by the leader of the new team she was involved with. It drove her nuts – as she knew she had the smarts and the experience to handle her new role really well – if only her boss would let her get on with the job.

Having someone breathing down your neck, crosschecking everything you do is a sure way to stifle productivity, innovation and creativity.

A threat to our autonomy is a threat to our brain. We start to feel resentful, angry or anxious which greatly reduces our effectiveness because our focus is being taken up by our negative emotions. Trying to ignore how we feel is akin to that annoying stone in our shoe. It doesn’t let us forget it is there.

Autonomy is also closely related to trust and status. If we feel we are being continually checked up on we sense we are not trusted to do a good enough job – hardly great for self esteem or willingness to come up with new ideas on how to make things work better.

Obviously much depends on the type of workplace and the job required. But it is the feeling of autonomy that is as important to the brain as the depth and breadth of choice. That’s why even small gestures are important. For example providing a new resident in a nursing home with the choice of how they wish their furniture in their room to be arranged, or what colour paint to put on the walls, has been shown to influence how long they will live.

In my group medical practice, the administrative staff was allowed to organize their own work roster. As long as the hours were covered, there was no issue with changing shifts. Over the years there was never any abuse of the system and the flexibility was much appreciated.

Marylene Gagne from Concordia’s John Molson School of Business reports how

“Autonomy is important in every culture because it especially leads to better productivity, when the work is complex or requires more creativity.”

That’s why creating a brain safe environment is essential to fully engage with every individuals potential to enable them to work at their best, foster change and greater collaboration.

How does your workplace nurture autonomy?

Have you ever been micromanaged?

What can you do as a leader to ensure your workplace promotes initiative, community and contribution?


Human Autonomy in Cross-Cultural Context: Perspectives on the Psychology of Agency, Freedom, and Well-Being Springer 2011

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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