Motivating by Autonomy

When people have the ability to direct their own lives, they do better work. Period. — Daniel Pink


One of the keys to a workforce that’s truly motivated is autonomy. But to understand this concept we have to understand another word. And that word is management. We take this word way too seriously. We think that management has always been here, that it emanated from nature. But that’s not the case. Management is simply a technology. It’s something that some guy invented. And that guy two invented it invented it in the 1850s. So it’s a very, very old technology. Management is a great technology if you want compliance, if you want people to do what you want them to do, the way you want them to do it. And let’s be fair, as an entrepreneur, there are sometimes with your team you want them to be compliant, you want them to do what you tell them to do the way you tell them to do it.

But for true success, for true growth, you don’t want a compliant workforce, you want an engaged workforce. You want people to be engaged. And the funny thing about human beings is that they don’t engage by being managed. I don’t engage by being managed. You don’t engage by being managed. The people you love don’t engage by being managed. The way that human beings engage is by getting there under their own steam.

So the proper technology for engagement is self‑direction, self‑direction. So as an entrepreneur, as a leader, you want to create an environment where people have some control over what they do, how they do it, when they do it and who they do it with. And there are all kinds of ways you can make small steps in this direction to foster greater autonomy in your workforce. You can do things like let people come in whenever they want, right? You don’t need to monitor them. You’ve got an enough hassles as an entrepreneur to track everybody’s time. Some companies have gone so far as to say take a vacation whenever you want, you’re an adult, you figure it out. One hour a week, a genius hour where people leave their job, regular job and think of better ways to run the place.

So one really cool idea which was originally known as a FedEx day is now more often called a ship it day. It works like this: One day a quarter people don’t do their regular jobs. Instead, they work on whatever they want with whoever they want. The only obligation is that the following day they have to show what they’ve created to the rest of the company. This one day of intense, undiluted autonomy has produced in many companies all kinds of ideas for new products, fixes for existing products, improvements to internal processes that had otherwise never emerged. And what this technique does is it harnesses people’s innate desire to do good work. It harnesses their innate desire for autonomy to really create and grow and improve the company.

You know, when I talk about autonomy I don’t mean a complete free for all. What I mean is dialing the notch up a little bit toward autonomy and a little bit away from control. If you’re concerned about what’s going to happen if people have a lot of autonomy, you might not have a motivation problem, you might have a hiring problem. Because if you can’t trust people to go out and do the right thing then you’ve probably hired the wrong people.
As an entrepreneur, you got into this because of your desire for autonomy so why should you treat other people differently? What you want to do is create an environment where people can direct their own lives. Because when people have the ability to direct their own lives, they do better work. Period.

Suggested Readings

Founders School || Leadership and Motivation || Motivating by Autonomy || Impact Guide (PDF).

Pink, Daniel H. 2009. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books. Chapter 4 “Autonomy”.

Mediratta, Bharat; as told to Julie Bick. The Google Way: Give Engineers Room. New York Times, October 21, 2007.

Welde, Jack. Wall Street Journal: The Accelerators Blog, June 19, 2014. “4 Tips for Leading Through the Peaks and Valleys of Startup Life”.

Questions for You

What implications does the importance of autonomy have for me as an entrepreneur?

How can I foster autonomy in my company?

What are my concerns about granting more autonomy to my team?

Tools and exercises

Make a list of the ways in which you control your workplace. Make a list of the ways in which you make room for autonomy in your workplace. Which list is longer? How can you improve?