Neuroscience Deep Dive: Understand The Impact Of Autonomy On Employee Happiness

Employee happiness can be linked to autonomy in the workplace. Autonomy is associated with the Instinctive brain system in our neuroscience model.

If you've just landed here, we recommend heading over to our brain systems and neuroscience themes pages for an introduction to our neuroscience model and methodology. Otherwise, read on to find out why autonomy is a vital component for workplace happiness.


What Is Autonomy?  

Autonomy is a basic human need that gives us a sense of control and choice over the “what, how, and when” of work. It allows for standards, not rules, for innovation, not restrictions, and enables the ability to take ownership of our work. 

Autonomy and freedom are not the same things. Autonomy is the ability to prioritise for yourself within a subset of things. Freedom is how you do that. It's not necessarily what you do. It's how you do it.

Gaining Control

Control is the highest driver for people who choose self-employment. This is because people want the greatest control over what work they are doing, which suggests a lack of control in traditional employment. Some organisations are better at giving people more autonomy, but in self-employment (in the purest form), you have the right to say no. 

The idea of exercising control and choice is subject to having other options. The data shows a lot of freelancers feel they're not always in control of their work because they have to take on projects to pay the bills as opposed to ones they truly want to do. A sense of control is often absent because of a fear dynamic. 

On the flip side, self-employed people can get very busy and don’t always have control over their diaries. For example, a freelance finance professional is subject to immovable deadlines around year end reporting cycles. 

The single biggest driver that people need is to have the freedom to control and design how they work.

Is Freedom A Binary Choice Between Employment & Self-Employment?

Many people see self-employment as the singular alternative to employment, and, equally, the answer to their current toxic job, which is incorrect. We learn from every relationship, and when we see things broken in a job, we look for what's the opposite. But the opposite of employment is not self-employment. They are not the only two options. What are the things that you don't like about your current role? Many of those things don't have anything to do with the job. It's respect, autonomy, control, motivation, psychological safety, and positive feedback, but you don't get these by default by becoming self-employed.

Give People What They Need & Want 

Individuals need a series of things in order to do their best work: Clarity, support, engagement, feedback, development, and progression. These are fundamental human needs and are about communication and relationship building. So I would like to see a world where it doesn't matter whether you’re freelance or a permanent member of staff; the same set of principles and values are applied, and the only difference is how they get paid.

Prepare Managers For The New World Of Work

Before you even hire, get clear on your team's values, ways of working, and expectations. Then during the interview process, don’t solely focus on capabilities. Consider the candidate’s aptitude, attitude, what they want to get out of roles, and understanding what motivates and engages them. The engagement aspect of it starts before they're in the job. That sets your objectives and key results (OKRs) in a different way. It's not just what that individual is delivering for the organisation; it is what the organisation is delivering for that individual. 

Supporting Managers 

Not everyone is naturally equipped to have challenging conversations, and managers rarely get trained in how to be a manager! They need to be equipped to learn how to listen effectively, and have a good, emotionally intelligent conversation. 

Secondly, managers need to not think about the individual in the role but think about the individual as their career. What job do they want to do next? As a manager, your role is to equip your employees with the skills they need to get to the next role. Thinking for the long term about what that individual really needs to grow. When we hire someone, we benefit from the previous organisation’s investment in them, and the next organisation will benefit from our investment. 

The Future Of Work 

The future of work is more fluid within organisations, across teams, across companies and models of work. If you look at a lot of Scandinavian businesses, you see people are within a single organisation like 20, 30 years, but they've had six or seven very different jobs in that time. They have that mindset that encourages movement and fluidity. When we embrace people coming into our organisations, it means we’re supporting them on their journey to the next thing. 

*This is an excerpt from the Happiness and Humans Podcast with Matthew Knight, the Freelance Officer at Leapers

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About The Happiness Index

The Happiness Index helps organisations measure the key employee engagement AND happiness drivers to power their people strategy.

Our unique platform offers the products, insights and tools to shine a light on your cultural health and empower management to drive thriving cultures.

Our neuroscience-based pre-built surveys measure the full employee experience - from onboarding to exit to empower and enable organisations to understand their people and create data-led action plans.


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