When and how to give employees job autonomy


James Van Scotter II, Ph.D., College of Business, Colorado Springs Business Journal

Job autonomy, has been of increasing interest to companies and to scholars conducting research on how to design jobs for optimal performance.

Problem: At my company, co-workers generally want to help each other to be as effective as possible. The problem is that most of our jobs are designed to make sure employees are well-supervised and monitored rather than trusting them to find the best way. How can we give workers more autonomy?

For several decades, much of the research on job design has relied on the so-called Job Characteristics Model. The central idea is that most jobs share a common set of characteristics:

  • Skill variety — The skills and talents required to perform job tasks.
  • Task identity — The degree to which a worker identifies with the job outcomes.
  • Task significance — The degree to which a worker believes the job has a positive impact on others.
  • Feedback — The ability for a worker to assess their performance based on performance metrics.
  • Autonomy — The degree to which a worker feels independence, freedom and discretion to plan the work process and to choose how to complete the work.

Autonomy in Job Design

The last characteristic in this scheme, job autonomy, has been of increasing interest to companies and to scholars conducting research on how to design jobs for optimal performance. Recent research suggests that job autonomy is more highly valued by younger workers than by those who are part of the Baby Boomer generation.

Why the increasing premium on job autonomy? Some scholars assert that the increased value of job autonomy comes from the increasing number of families with dual working parents and single-parent families that need a bit more flexibility in scheduling activities. Another reason for increasing interest in autonomy is that technology has made many jobs inherently more flexible. Modern workers can work from home, telecommute, work late or early hours in order to collaborate with other workers around the world, or set their own hours. Finally, much of the work done by highly educated professionals and skilled employees is non-routine. It requires innovation, customization of solutions and cross-functional interactions with other highly trained and educated professionals.

In certain types of work, tight supervision, monitoring, control and rigid mechanistic procedures are unavoidable for security, safety, legal liability protection and other reasons. Traditionally, younger, more inexperienced workers have had less job autonomy than older workers at higher levels. Together, these facts raise an important question for human resources professionals. How much job autonomy is the right amount for any given position?

Research suggests that personality plays a role in amplifying the link between job autonomy and job performance. For example, 25 years ago personality scholars Murray Barrick and Michael Mount conducted a study of managers that found the personality traits of Conscientiousness (i.e., being competent, achievement-focused, organized, cautious, deliberative, dutiful and self-disciplined) and, to a lesser degree, Extroversion, enhance the link between autonomy and managerial job performance. Stated simply, when Conscientious and Extroverted managers were given more autonomy in their jobs, they performed significantly better than those who were not given much autonomy.

Building on this research, my colleague and I investigated how interpersonal facilitation at work (i.e., being supportive, cooperative and helpful for co-workers) affects supervisor ratings of overall job performance. This forthcoming study shows that job autonomy is also essential for maximizing the positive effects of interpersonal facilitation. In a nutshell, this new research shows that when an organization has employees who are motivated to engage in organizational citizenship and cooperative helping behaviors, then the positive overall performance effects of this type of interpersonal facilitation will be maximized when the employees are given more job autonomy.

Action steps to increase job autonomy

Step 1: Assess whether increased job autonomy is feasible.

This job requires close supervision and adherence to procedures due to: Strongly Disagree Disagree Neither Agree nor Disagree Agree Strongly Agree
Other reasons          

Step 2: Identify who has the personality (conscientiousness) and drive to be proactive, helpful and cooperative. Consider Supervisor and Co-worker ratings for the employee:

While performing his or her job, how likely is it this person would: Not at All Likely Slightly Likely Moderately Likely Very Likely Exceptionally Likely
Cooperate with others effectively          
Offer to help others with their work          
Support a co-worker with a problem          

Step 3: Insert appropriate flexibility, autonomy and discretion into the job description.

  1. Permit flexible hours/occasional telecommuting.
  2. Clearly delegate specific decision authority.

Step 4: Link autonomy with performance evaluations and reward systems.

  1. Solicit co-worker and supervisor feedback about cooperativeness, support and helpfulness in performance reviews.
  2. Publicly recognize and reward organizational citizenship behaviors and interpersonal facilitation.

Step 5: Regularly review and revise job descriptions to optimize benefits of autonomy:

  1. Track job performance, retention, employee effectiveness and satisfaction.
  2. Track changes to feasibility for job autonomy: changes to job safety, security, liability, etc.
  3. Revise job descriptions to optimize autonomy.
  4. Report on organizational citizenship trends that build a supportive culture with high performance.

Dr. James R. Van Scotter is an assistant professor of strategy in the UCCS College of Business. His current research is focused on executive succession and compensation, personality and leadership, organizational design and culture, and strategy and firm performance. Contact: OPED@uccs.edu.

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