Is Your Leader Giving You The Freedom You Need?

By: Keaton Fletcher

Findings from a recently published meta-analysis (a method of combining the findings from many different smaller studies) by Gavin SlempMargaret KernKent Patrick, and Richard Ryan suggest that good leaders support your autonomy in the workplace.

Leadership has long been a useful tool for organizations to motivate and manage the workforce. Perspectives on leadership have shifted from what rewards and punishments a leader should use, to how can a leader facilitate workers’ own motivation. One perspective on leadership behaviors is that of leader autonomy support. The idea behind leader autonomy support is that a good leader should recognize that workers have their own perspectives, should encourage the workers to be self-starters, and give employees opportunities to make decisions and have input. Further, leaders should avoid the use of rewards and punishments or controlling language/communication, to help the workers feel empowered and motivated to make their own decisions. 

The perspective of leader autonomy support is tied to a main motivational theory, self-determination theory, which suggests that humans have three needs beyond those for survival: a need for autonomy, a need for competence, and a need for relatedness. Work can help people meet each of these needs, particularly if it is well designed and workers have leaders who support these ideals. Leader autonomy support has been shown to relate to people’s perceived ability to meet each of these needs through work. In turn, meeting these needs then predicts workers’ autonomous motivation. In other words, if you feel like your work is fulfilling and meeting your needs, you are more motivated to work because you like it and you value it, not because someone else is telling you that you have to, or because you need the rewards (e.g., pay) it provides. Workers who are more highly autonomously motivated, in turn, experience a wide range of positive outcomes. They have higher levels of well-being, work engagement, and lower levels of general distress.

So, what is the takeaway? Leaders in the workplace should be helping you to motivate yourself by giving you opportunities to act autonomously. This is why everyone complains when they feel like their boss is micromanaging, or when they feel like there is no room to grow or work on projects they care about. Having the autonomy to determine, to some extent, when, where, how, and what work you do can help keep you engaged and happy with your work. This will be particularly important as people continue to live longer, and staying in the workforce until one’s 70s or 80s is optional, but can be valuable both for the individual (if the work is meeting your needs) and society.

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