Read more


Freedom and Autonomy are both considered important to employee motivation, but are they fundamentally the same thing? In this blog Nick explores this question and why it matters.

...or “But they’ll never take away our autonomy!” >The secret to happiness is freedom… And the secret to freedom is courage >Thucydides You will no doubt have heard a lot about the importance of autonomy in the workplace when it comes to Employee Satisfaction and Employee Motivation - in fact it''s one of three accepted drivers of intrinsic motivation (motivation in the absence of external rewards). But what about the importance of freedom?

So, is it Freedom or Autonomy?

Same thing, right? Well, it gets a little complex depending on who you are speaking to and in what context. Autonomy at its basest means the ability to self-rule and freedom is a little different. When we think about freedom, we need to make a distinction between two things: - Freedom from…(negative freedom) or ‘The absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints’ - Freedom to…(positive freedom) or ‘The freedom to act’ So, can you have autonomy and the presence of obstacles, barriers and constraints? Well, yes. Maybe not absolute autonomy. Is autonomy freedom within a framework? And for this blog shall we call that framework ‘Work’? In an agile organisation, people are free to do what they need to do. In short, there are fewer rules about how to do things, and only rules that make it easier to work... ...''freedom from'' unncecessary or unhelpful constraints. Often when we say ‘Autonomy’, we are referring to ‘Freedom to act’ and not so much are we referring to ‘Freedom from…’ I personally think that autonomy is probably not just about removing rules about what your people can and can''t do - what they wear, when and how they work. These examples are simply reducing the employee’s negative freedoms, removing constraints or the extent to which their day to day life is controlled If you are thinking about how to give autonomy to your people, then you also need to think about how you give them the freedom be the best them they can be too! Fundamentally, what we are talking about here is power and control over their own work. But what is it and how does this translate into the People Experience in your world of work?

Autonomy and Employee Motivation

We know that freedom and autonomy in the workplace has a direct impact on both the satisfaction and the motivation of your people. Let’s look at a few areas for example:

Company Policies: Do your policies enable  people to do great work, are they light touch and in place to support your people, reviewed regularly with the policy owner and the people the policy impacts? Or, do they put up a barrier to great work, are they heavy going or ambiguous, do they suck the time out of an individual’s day to adhere to a policy? If the former, Whoop! Sounds great but if the latter…oh no! your barrier to great work is reducing freedom, autonomy and possibly driving dissatisfaction

Responsibility: Do you encourage people to take responsibility for delivering their work, to influence how this might be done and enable them to manage the outcomes, both good and bad? Or do you prescribe what, when and how they must carry out their work, maybe they need to report in to let you know they have done the work or even send the outputs to you, so you can forward them on? Does the first example sound like something you would do? Yay! Sounds like you get it and your people will feel more motivated by this! Does the second example ring a bell? The ''freedom to'' take responsibility is a real driver of motivation for your people, so putting in rules that restrict peoples ability to act with responsibility or if you act in a way that reduces your peoples level of responsibility then you could be driving down motivation and satisfaction levels. But why is this important?

Freedom, Autonomy and Psychological wellbeing In a recent industry survey of HR professionals carried out by The People Experience Hub and Phil Wilcox from Emotion@Work , we saw in the results what appears to be a link between people’s freedom and their levels of stress. 90% of those people who said that they did not have the freedom to do their best work said that they had felt stressed about work in the last 4 weeks. (compared to 63% of those who said they did have the freedom to do their best work) Over 50% of these also said that work regularly kept them awake at night. (compared to 29% of people who said they did have the freedom to do their best work) >You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free >thich nhat hanh

Measuring the experience

Designing a workplace where the culture supports autonomy and freedom for your people to do their best work impacts positively on satisfaction and motivation and could also improve employee wellbeing, so it makes real sense to strive towards this where you work. Understanding what gets in the way of trusting people to do their roles and what stops us removing barriers or obstacles in their way will allow you to develop a climate in your organisation where autonomy, or freedom, is the default position. Our employee feedback solution allow you to understand how your people think about the world of work you have designed for them including satisfaction, motivation, autonomy and freedom.

Share this post: