Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Workplace motivation and autonomy

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Workplace motivation and autonomy:
What is the role of autonomy in workplace motivation?

Overview[edit | edit source]


What causes behaviour? Researchers, theorists and great thinkers have been exploring the concept of motivation for decades. An individual’s motivation to perform goal-oriented behaviour is a concept that may seem simple, but its proponents are complex to a degree that may be incalculable. However, for many, understanding the drivers of motivation is essential to the achievement of their own objectives. One such example are organisations, who’s[grammar?] understanding of the drivers of motivation affects key organisational performance indicators of productivity, general employee welfare, and ultimately, the profit derived from their workplaces. Of particular interest to organisations is the role of autonomy within the workplace. Having autonomy is good for employees, and having autonomous employees is good for workplaces as well, though the concept of autonomy is often misinterpreted and improperly fostered within workplaces.

What is Autonomy?[edit | edit source]

Rather than being told what to do and when to do it, we as individuals need to do what we want to do when we want do it (Strain, 1999). Autonomous action is behaviour that is performed to satiate individual desires and out of individual needs and wants rather than to meet external demands (Reeve, 2015). Autonomous behaviour is driven from our interests, preferences, wants and desires, and performing behaviours that align with these is easy for us because we would prefer to, desire to, want to or are interested in doing so (Langfred, 2013). As such, autonomous Motivation is said to be intrinsically rather than extrinsically derived.

Self Determination Theory[edit | edit source]

Self Determination Theory.

Self Determination Theory (SDT) involves Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness which can be used to improve Workplace Motivation. The interdependence of these three factors in creating intrinsic motivation has also been emphasised in previous research (Gagane & Deci, 2005). According to SDT, Autonomy forms one of the three key factors in an individual’s self-determination, is a basic psychological need and is defined by an individual’s ability to regulate the self (Gagane & Deci, 2005). SDT maintains that an individual’s psychological wellbeing, growth and engagement with work is a function of the three basic psychological needs being satisfied (Ryan & Deci, 2008; Kovjanic, Schuh & Jonas, 2013)

Autonomic Motivation being driven from Intrinsic forces & Locus of Control[edit | edit source]

Autonomy as a psychological need is recognised as being driven from intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivation (Meng & Ma, 2015). Traditional approaches towards workplace motivation focus on providing external rewards such as pay and promotion to motivate employees to perform their function within the workplace and underestimate the importance of intrinsic reward (Gerhart & Fang, 2015). This may be because external rewards are easy to provide to employees, whereas internal reward is derived from within an individual and thus cannot be provided to an individual, but only supported from without. However, research suggests that rewarding intrinsically motivated behaviour with extrinsic reward may decrease the likelihood to perform it (Edward, 1971). Thus, the risk is that successful individuals high in autonomy are likely to receive external rewards for demonstrating desirable behaviours, which may decrease the intrinsic reward they receive. Individuals exhibiting high amounts of intrinsically motivated behaviours are more likely to find satisfaction in what they do and have higher performance within the workplace (Dysvik & Kuvaas, 2010). Autonomy also concerns an individual’s locus of control. An individual believing that he/she can influence events/circumstances through their own actions (controlled internally) is said to have an internal locus of control, whereas an individual believing that events/circumstances are outside their control (controlled externally) would have an external locus of control (Reeve, 2015).

Perceived Autonomy[edit | edit source]

An individuals[grammar?] perceived autonomy is comprised of three individual and subjective qualities (Reeve, 2015; Strain, 1999).

Three factors of perceived autonomy

- Internal perceived locus of causality

(discussed above)

Example: An employee attributing feelings that they have too much work to do because they did not structure time properly rather than being delegated an unfair workload by a supervisor. 

- Volition (feeling free)

The willingness of a person to move towards a goal or perform a behaviour without any external demands or pressures.

Example: Completing an assignment or work task out of genuine interest, rather than because management requests its completion.

- Perceived choice over one’s actions

The ability to choose between different options without direct constraints, having a feeling that behaviour is chosen rather than coerced or controlled.

Example: Choosing a project because of own interest and freedom of decision, as opposed to being it being directed or being told it would be the most beneficial.

(Reeve, 2015).

Autonomous Individuals in Organisations[edit | edit source]

Autonomous Individuals in Organisations

The benefit of an Autonomous individual in the workplace is that rather than having to be controlled to perform behaviours resulting in profit for the firm, individuals do so of their own volition (Verhorst, Peters, Bouckaet, & Verschuere 2004). Job autonomy has been described as one of the major determinants of Employee Motivation (Teck-Hon & Waheed, 2011)[Provide more detail]. Additionally, Autonomous individuals exhibit greater innovation, creative participation and learning than less autonomous employees (Sia & Appu, 2015)[Provide more detail].

Autonomy as a Determinant of Health[edit | edit source]

A great deal of research concerns health in the workplace and the role of autonomy as a determinant of health. Autonomy has been found to have effects on both stress and general health in the workplace (Sisley, 2010). Higher autonomy can have positive health effects such as greater energy, lower stress and improved socialisation and relationships (Trepanier, Fernet, & Austin, 2013; Sia & Appu, 2015). Furthermore, lower autonomy in the workplace has been associated with higher instances of workplace bullying (Baillien, De Cuyper, & De Witte, 2011). In the interests of employee’s[grammar?] health, and the work costs of health such as sick pay and higher employee turnover, autonomy should be a key consideration of an organisation’s health policy (De Cuyper & De Witte, 2006).

Case Studies & Surveys[edit | edit source]

Several case studies have explored the role of autonomy in the workplace. Brunetto & Farr-Wharton (2004) examined the impact of perception of autonomy on job satisfaction within public sector nursing. Using a mixture of qualitative and quantitative research they examined the role of context specific perceived autonomy of nurses between several positions (nurse, middle nurse manager, senior nurse manager). The construct of perceived autonomy was comprised of how “tight” the control the nurses perceived, how much bidirectional communication and support was perceived in the work environment, and the level of communication about interpersonal needs by the nurses to their superiors. Using thematic analysis and Multiple Linear Regression Brunetto & Farr-Wharton (2004) found a positive correlation with these measures of perceived autonomy and work satisfaction.

The Gensler (2013) US workplace survey conducted research into elements of choice in the workplace. Exploring self rated Innovation, Job Performance, Job Satisfaction and overall Workplace Satisfaction, they found that greater choice in how employees conducted their work led to increased in all 4 self rated elements. Also reviewed in the same survey was further research findings that grant employees within universities that employed autonomy support styles rather than control orientation experienced greater growth and and had less employee turnover (Gensler 2013).

A study of 25 small sized retail companies conducted research to answer questions surrounding the relationship of autonomy to company performance and company commitment. The study found that higher team autonomy was correlated with higher profit and higher commitment to organisations (Von Bonsdorff, Janhonen, Zhou, & Vanhala, 2015).

Difference between Autonomic & Controlled Motivation[edit | edit source]

[what?] Literature highlights the difference between Autonomic motivation and Controlled motivation, and the difference in outcomes in motivational outcomes between Autonomy-Supportive or Controlling motivational styles.

Autonomic motivation styles support the individual’s motivation as coming from internal factors and support them. These styles recognise an individual’s interests, preferences, wants and desires, and foster them in a way that directs the motivation that they produce towards desired goals (Gellatly & Irving, 2001). Alternately, Controlling Motivation Styles utilise social influence, external rewards such as money and power, and other explicit prescribed outcomes to induce motivation and direct it towards desired goals (Brunetto & Farr-Wharton, 2004). A controlling motivational style attempts to induce behaviour through incentives, deadlines, directives or threats of punishment (Reeve, 2015). The benefit of using an Autonomic motivational as opposed to a controlling motivational style is that the motivation to perform behaviours already exists within the individual; it just needs to be fostered in a way that direct it towards organisational objectives (Uhioda, 2011). As motivation through autonomy is fostered through support rather than induced through control, organisations attempting to increase autonomy among employees rely on an approach of autonomy support (Tomas, Kestner, Houlfort, & Kaspar, 2013).

Autonomy Support[edit | edit source]

Autonomy support concerns the production of workplace motivation through supporting intrinsic motivation within employees (Meng & Ma, 2015). Such approaches utilise an understanding of an individual’s interests, preferences, wants and desires (Reeve, 2015). This understanding allows organisations to recognise the growth potential of an employee, and provide opportunities for the employee to pursue tasks that align with what an employee may wish to do (Tomas, Kestner, Houlfort, & Kaspar, 2013). Research indicates a link between autonomy supportive leadership and volunteer satisfaction and suggests that autonomy-supportive leadership is an important part of the organisational context (Ootlander, Guntert, & Wehner, 2014; Tomas, Kestner, Houlfort, & Kaspar, 2013).

Autonomy Supportive Workplaces:

- Identify and Provide choice for a workload and work type that aligns with individual an employee’s intrinsic motivators.

- Solve poor employee performance through addressing motivational influences.

- Provide explanation and insight into how an employees work functions support the larger organisation.

- Accept and address employee complaints or negative employee reactions.

- Provide timely and consistent support to employees.

(Reeve, 2015; Meng & Ma, 2015).

However, the reality is that organisations do need to provide external rewards such as pay for most employees to show up to work, and even the most motivated employee may have difficulty understanding the work environment if there are not some guidelines set out by the organisation about their work. The importance of autonomy supportive workplaces is enabling employees to express their autonomy, and providing them with the support that they need (Tomas, Kestner, Houlfort, & Kaspar, 2013). Questionnaires and interviews help organisations to provide individualised support and work structure to foster autonomy within employees (Meng & Ma, 2015).

Autonomy & Individual Differences[edit | edit source]

Individual Difference

Rather than a generic approach towards implementing an autonomous workforce, successful autonomy creation relies on the acknowledgement and consideration of the employee as an individual, and the difference between them and other individuals within the workplace (Burchardt, Evans, & Holder, 2015). Substantial individual differences exist in individuals in areas of base motivation levels, desire for autonomy, control, levels of introversion/extraversion and desire for stimulation (Gellatly & Irving, 2001). The effectiveness of workplace personnel in recognising these differences and design workload to suit differences is a key determinant or success in inducing autonomy (Gellatly & Irving, 2001). Three of the “Big 5” personality traits have shown relationships with work performance, with autonomy playing a moderating role (Van Russeveldt & Van Dijke, 2001). The differences between individuals, both in terms of personality, autonomy and psychological needs reduce the applicability of more generalised approaches to increasing autonomy, and further highlight the need for evaluative tools.

Measuring Autonomy[edit | edit source]

Autonomy can be measured within individuals with valid and reliable measured such as autonomy index scales (Weinstein, Przybylski, & Ryan, 2012). Additional sources advocate for the addition of autonomy in organisational performance constructs (Lumpkin, Cogliser, & Schneider, 2009). Differing constructs of autonomy may be considered in the measurement of autonomy, some use single constructs of autonomy, and some use multifactorial constructs. Due to the relationship between autonomy and other measures of personality and work performance measures of autonomy should be considered in addition to other personality measures for greater suitability of work placements (Van Russeveldt & Van Dijke, 2001).. The addition of autonomy to workplace measures would provide further theoretical and empirical insights into its role in workplace motivation, performance and contribution towards innovation and entrepreneurial activities (Lumpkin, Cogliser, & Schneider, 2009). However, the difference in constructs of autonomy and the way in which it is measured means that results should be interpreted within the constructs that they are designed to measure and examined carefully for their valid implications towards understanding workplace autonomy.

Cultural Considerations[edit | edit source]

Autonomy has an important role in the workplace, but may change depending on which culture the organisation exists. Autonomy is recognised as a universal human need, but its manifestation differs according to culture (Kagitcibasi, 2005). Collectivist and Individualistic culture have different perceptions of the role of autonomy in the workforce, and different individual expectations on the amount of autonomy that they may exercise. In some cultures, work team autonomy may be more important than individual autonomy within the workplace and this effects the type of autonomy support that may be required in the workplace (Kagitcibasi, 2005).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Autonomy plays an important role in the workplace. As a basic psychological need, it is produced internally, though may be fostered in the workplace through autonomy support. Autonomy in the workplace shows strong relationships with many aspects of organisational performance, including profit, employee turnover and organisational commitment. In addition, Autonomy exists within the workplace as a determinant of health, and fosters creative creativity and innovation. Autonomy differs between individuals and cultures but is shown as a universal human need, and shows relationships with personality constructs often used in employee evaluation. Autonomy may be measured, and due to its significant influence on individuals and workplace functions it should be a key consideration of both workplaces and psychological scientists alike.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Baillien, E., De Cuyper, N., & De Witte, H. (2011). Job Autonomy and workload as antecedents of workplace bullying: A two-wave test of Karasek's Job Demand Control Model for targets and perpetrators Journal of Occupational & Orgnizational Psychology, 84(1), 191-208.

Brunetto, Y., Farr-Wharton, R. (2004). A Case Study Examining the Impact of Public-Sector Nurses’ Perception of Workplace Autonomy on their Job Satisfaction; Lessons for Management International Journal of Management & Organisational Behaviour, 8(5), 521-539.

Burchardt, T., Evans, M., & Holder, H. (2015). Public Policy and Inequalities of Choice and Autonomy Social Policy and Administration, 49(1), 44-67.

De Cuyper, N., & De Witte, H. (2006). Autonomy and workload among temporary workers: Their effects on job satisfaction, organizational commitment, life satisfaction, and self-rated performance. International Journal of Stress Management, 13(4), 441-459.

Dysvik, A., & Kuvaas, B. (2010). Intrinsic motivation as a moderator on the relationship between perceived job autonomy and work performance European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 20(3), 367-387.

Edward, D. (1971). Effects of externally medaited rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18(1), 105-115.

Gagane, M., & Deci, E. L. (2005). Self-Determination theory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26, 331-362.

Gellatly, I. R., & Irving, P. G. (2001). Personality, Autonomy, and Contextual Performance for Managers. Human Performance, 14(3), 231-245.

Gensler. (2013). U.S Workplace Survey; Key Findings, Retrieved from

Gerhart, B., Fang, M. (2015). Pay, Intrinsic Motivation, Extrinsic Motivation, Performance, and Creativity in the Workplace: Revisiting Long-Held Beliefs Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 2, 489-521.

Kagitcibasi, C. (2005). Autonomy and Relatedness in a Cross-Cultural Context. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 36(4), 403-422.

Kovjanic, S., Schuh, S. C. (2013). Transformational leadership and performance: An experimental investigation of the mediating effects of basic needs satisfaction and work engagement Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 86(4), 543-555.

Langfred, C. W. (2013). To Be or Not to Be Autonomous: Exploring Why Employees Want More Autonomy North American Journal of Psychology, 15(2), 355-366.

Lumpkin, G. T., Cogliser, C. C., & Schneider, D. R. (2009). Understanding and Measuring Autonomy: An Entrepreneurial Orientation Perspective. Entrepreneurship: Theory & Practice, 33(1), 47-69.

Meng, L., & Ma, Q. (2015). Live as we choose: The role of autonomy support in facilitating intrinsic motivation. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 11029, 1-7.

Ootlander, J., Guntert, S. T., & Wehner, T. (2014). Linking Autonomy-Supportive Leadership to Volunteer Satisfaction: A Self-Determination Theory Perspective International Society for Third-Sector Research, 25, 1368-1387.

Reeve, J. (2015). Understanding Motivation and Emotion (6 ed.). USA: George Hoffman

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2008). Self-determination theory and the role of basic psychological needs in personality and the organization of behavior. In O. P. John, R. W. Robbins, & L. A. Pervin (Eds.), Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research (pp. 654-678). New York: The Guilford Press

Sia, S. K., & Appu, A. V. (2015). Work Autonomy and Workplace Creativity: Moderating Role of Task Complexity Global Business Review, 16(5), 772-784.

Sisley, R. (2010). Autonomous motivation and well-being: An alternative approach to workplace stress management New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations, 35(2), 28-40.

Strain Jr, C. R. (1999). Percieved Autonomy, Need for Autonomy, And Job Performance in Retail Salespeople Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 14(2), 289.

Teck-Hon, T., & Waheed, A. (2011). Herzberg's Motivation-Hygiene Theory and Job Satisfaction In The Malaysian Retail Sector: The Mediating Effect of Love of Money. Asian Academy of Management Journal, 16(1), 79-94.

Tomas, J., Kestner, R. F., Houlfort, N., & Kaspar, S.-. (2013). Distinguishing Source of Autonomy Support in Relation to workers' Motivation and Self-Efficacy. Journal of Social Support, 153(6), 651-667.

Trepanier, S.-G., Fernet, C., & Austin, S. (2013). The moderating role of autonomous motivation in the job demands-strain relation: A two sample study. Motivation and Emotion, 37, 93-105.

Uhioda, E. (2011). Why autonomy? Insights from motivation theory and research. Innovation in Language Learning and Training, 5(2), 221-232.

Van Russeveldt, J., & Van Dijke, M. (2001). When are workload and workplace learning opportunities related in a curvilinear manner? The moderating role of autonomy Journal of Vocational Behavior, 79, 470-483.

Verhoest, K., Peters, B. G., Bouckaert, G., & Verschuere, B. (2004). The Study of Organisational Autonomy: A Conceptual review Public Adminstration and Development, 24(2), 101-118.

Von Bonsdorff, M. E., Janhonen, M., Zhou, Z., & Vanhala, S. (2015). Team autonomy, organizational commitment and company performance - a study in the retail trade. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 26(8), 1098-1109.

Weinstein, N., Przybylski, A. K., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). The index of autonomous functioning: Development of a scale of human autonomy Journal of Research in Personality, 46, 397-413.

External links[edit | edit source]

  • Dan Pink (Author of Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us) on autonomy