Issue Briefs

Following is the section of a recent MSPB research paper stressing the benefits to both employees and their agencies of having greater autonomy in their work.

Autonomy is the degree of freedom that employees have to make decisions about how to accomplish their work. Research shows that, generally, the more freedom employees have to make decisions and to direct their work activities, the greater their motivation to perform that work. As we explained in our 2012 report on motivation, “employees in jobs with high perceived levels of autonomy are more likely to be highly motivated – and perform at a higher level – than employees who believe that they have little autonomy.” The report recommended increasing employee autonomy to the extent permitted by mission requirements and employees’ capabilities.
The performance behavior with one of the strongest relationships to autonomy was trying creative or innovative things. Respondents with stronger autonomy were far more likely to state that they try creative/innovative things in their work to a great extent compared to those with moderate or weaker autonomy.
For some positions with very rigid procedures or standardized tasks, this lack of creativity may be acceptable or even desirable. However, for agencies that would prefer innovative ideas, it seems that a lack of autonomy could be costly.
Our 2010 MPS asked respondents if they agreed that their jobs gave them the freedom to make decisions regarding how they accomplished their work. Of those who agreed, 81% also agreed with the statement, “I feel highly motivated in my work.” Of those who disagreed that they had this autonomy, only 37% felt highly motivated. The 2016 data show a similar outcome when employees were asked about engagement. Of those with a stronger autonomy composite result, 71% strongly agreed that they felt engaged in their jobs, compared with 31% of those with moderate and 12% of those with weaker autonomy.
Given autonomy’s relationship with performance behaviors, it is not surprising that stronger autonomy was associated with a higher appraisal rating compared to moderate or weaker autonomy (62%, 50%, and 37%, respectively).
Along with autonomy comes the expectation that employees will apply that autonomy correctly. Among other things, this requires that they be given the information necessary to direct their efforts. Even when employee autonomy is limited, feedback may – to varying degrees – still help improve performance behaviors.
One way in which feedback fosters positive outcomes is by providing structure to the autonomy. Feedback is a way to tell employees that they have ownership. Too little feedback, and an employee may feel frustrated by the lack of direction. Too much, and an employee may feel like an automaton (a mechanical device mindlessly following orders).19 When feedback is seen as “informational” it can be empowering, while “controlling” feedback is more likely to be inhibiting or restraining.20 An employee who believes that autonomy is being unreasonably withheld may want to withhold his or her best efforts as a means of restoring balance.
We asked our 2016 MPS respondents whether it was important to “closely direct employee’s work so they do not make bad decisions,” and less than 20% agreed. We also asked if it was “important to let employees choose how to do their work, even if they sometimes make bad decisions,” and over 50% agreed. Supervisors were even more inclined than non-supervisors to state that this ability to choose was important, even if it resulted in mistakes (62% of supervisors vs. 50% of non-supervisors). So, both supervisors and employees appreciate – in the abstract – the importance of autonomy. But, it is when individual supervisors make these decisions to grant or withhold autonomy that theory becomes practice. And supervisors may not be thinking of the larger questions of what it means for employees to have this autonomy when making their day-to-day choices. One of purpose of this research brief is to show why they should.