Autonomy Enables The Helpful To Perform

August 8, 2011

Autonomy enables the helpful perform by BretSimmons

If everyone in your organization only did what was written in their formal job descriptions, your business would be mediocre at best. For your business to excel, your workforce from top to bottom needs to be full of good organizational citizens. Good citizens at work go above and beyond their assigned duties to try to help fellow employees and the organization.

Employees help each other by offering advice, lending a hand, resolving conflicts, and celebrating each other’s achievements. Employees that receive trustworthy help from others feel an obligation to reciprocate, which strengthens work relationships. Good citizens in thriving work relationships will be motivated to find ways to perform their tasks more effectively and efficiently. Employees that help each other strengthen the bonds of trust with team members and supervisors, and we know trust has a strong effect on performance.

Unfortunately, good team relationships won’t matter much if employees aren’t given the latitude to improve their jobs. And good team relationships will struggle to develop when employees can’t help each other because they are constrained to “just worry about getting your job done.”

A study by Muammer Ozer recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology (full citation below) showed how autonomy affected the relationship between organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) and job performance. This study of 266 employees, coworkers, and supervisors showed that citizenship behavior improved work team relationships, and work team relationships had a significant effect on job performance.

Those relationships between citizenship behavior, teamwork, and performance are expected. What’s new here is the importance of autonomy in enabling this virtuous chain of behaviors. The study found that the links to performance were enhanced for those with the most job autonomy. Highly autonomous workers were better citizens, had better team relationships, and were better at translating those team relationships into improved performance.

Because autonomy matters so much to most workers, it matters to your business. Constrain your employees’ ability to help each other and work together to improve their jobs and you will likely also constrain the growth of your business. Help yourself by helping your employees help each other.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

Citation: Ozer, M. (2012). A Moderated Mediation Model of the Relationship Between Organizational Citizenship Behaviors and Job Performance. Journal of Applied Psychology

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Comments (15)

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  1. It’s almost like a law of nature: the more responsibility you seek, the more influence you gain, which also creates a byproduct of more freedom of choice, or as you write – autonomy.

    It is not just a function of the organization to encourage – or better, allow autonomy. Autonomy is the effect of employees seeking responsibility.

    Ultimately, the organization that encourages and allows people to seek responsibility will thrive. The best way to do so is not by saying “You are responsible.” “We are responsible” won’t work either; this statement actually diffuses real responsibility and potentially becomes an excuse. Rather, autonomy occurs when more people are saying “I am responsible” and they mean it.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Mark. Love your point about autonomy being my responsibility to seek. Totally concur. If your organization does not allow you to assume as much responsibility as you are capable of, move on. Great points – thanks for sharing! Bret

  2. Excellent post, I hope people take this to heart. On the surface it seems obvious that without autonomy employees are going to focus on tasks, their tasks. I find that many executives and managers want the benefits of co-operation and collaboration but it conflicts with deep seated beliefs that employees need to be controlled.

    One the other hand, there is a growing number of companies who are embracing autonomy and moving away from the pack. Engaged employees who are free to play a role that overlaps with others are the fuel for organizational agility. One of the factor contributing to a new divide between struggling and thriving.

    John I. Todor, Ph.D., MindShift Innovation

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, John. I think you are correct that managers give lip service to collaboration because they think it will make them look good, but they don’t really understand what it is and how to encourage it, probably because they never collaborated much before they got their titles and position. Great points – thanks for sharing! Bret

  3. Very good post. Not mentioned is that ability to work autonomously or in teams is a hiring factor, or should be for many positions. Also, if the team members work together and solve most of their issues together, it makes the managerial task easier, because the manager isn’t answering all sorts of questions that the team members could answer for themselves.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, John. Strongly concur that this must be designed into the selection process. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  4. davidburkus says:

    Interesting study. Made me think of Pink’s argument for autonomy in Drive. I guess maybe research is lagging then.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Most of what was in this study was not novel. The moderating effect of autonomy was novel. Thanks! Bret

  5. Good post that raises an important topic, but I think it is missing a critical element — autonomy is earned, not just given. We work on performance improvement initiatives in many organizations by discovering what the organization’s “positive deviants” think and do and this has implications for earning autonomy.

    The positive deviant “wisdom” always follows the same pattern. They begin with an underlying powerful driving force about achieving some type of greater social good. They then work hard to develop their skills. Only after having a strong sense of purpose and getting really good at their job do they expect autonomy — i.e. only once they have proven themselves.

    To put it in Dan Pink’s terms, “purpose” comes first — so the organization can be confident that people are aligned on what they are supposed to do. “Mastery” comes next — so the organization can be confident that people are good at what they do. “Autonomy” comes only when purpose and mastery are obviously present because then the organization knows that people are focused on the right things to do and are good at doing them.

    We worked with a number of companies that simply gave people autonomy — a kind of “free agent nation” idea. This was disasterous. No one was aligned on purpose and no one worked to get good at what they did. You can’t give autonomy if the conditions aren’t right.

    On the other hand, if the organization really is clear about and committed to the social good that is being created (and I don’t mean a boring “mission statement”) and works hard to ensure that its people have the skills to do a great job, trust increases and this makes it easy to give autonomy.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, William! Totally agree that purposeful actors don’t just earn autonomy, they won’t stand for anything less. Purpose is self-authorizing. LOVE your thoughts and appreciate you sharing them. Thanks! Bret

    William Seidman Reply:

    Good point. Purpose itself is a driving force for demanding autonomy. I love the idea of “self-authorizing.” The positive deviants just expect autonomy and behave in ways that makes it happen.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Not only do we expect it, we won’t settle for anything less. We try hard to self-select into systems that will enable, rather than disable, us. Thanks! Bret

  6. Bret, I would argue that most people already know this idea to some extent! After all, micromanagement from your leaders is something that reduces employee satisfaction and engagement, at least from a personal perspective. Autonomy leads to people doing one of two things: slacking off, and excelling beyond expectations of in-the-box thinking.

    Thanks for the post 🙂

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome back, Christian! I too would think folks would know this, but just look how many people still micromanage. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  7. Ruhi Desai says:

    Your post regarding work autonomy for the employees is quite informative and gives resourceful insights into the very essential workplace and profitability issues. However work autonomy is a useful tool for employees, which provides them the freedom to decide their course of action for their deliverables.
    Please visit our blogs and share your views on similar issues
    Thanks and Regards
    Ruhi Desai,
    Senior Business Development Manager @ Sapience Analytics Pvt Ltd