A Call for Autonomy This 4th of July

June 30, 2016 Sarah Payne

fourth of july

In the U.S., many of us are busy preparing for the Fourth of July holiday weekend—looking forward to fireworks, cookouts, and sunshine. But do you ever stop to think about why we celebrate the Fourth of July?

July 4, 1776 was the day that the Continental Congress declared that the thirteen colonies were a new nation, separate and independent from the British Empire. This one sentence in the Declaration of Independence became one of the most important in our nation’s history:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This is an unwavering statement of the United States’ autonomy, a concept which continues to have moral, political, and social implications. I suggest we use the Fourth of July as a chance to consider what independence and autonomy mean in the workplace. Why is autonomy so important in our work lives? How can we encourage more of it?

The Threat & Reward Response

One way to better understand the need for autonomy is through the lens of the threat and response model. It’s an idea explained by Dr. David Rock in a strategy + business article on “Managing with the Brain in Mind.” Essentially, it means that when we encounter something unexpected, our first instinct is to figure out whether it represents reward or danger.

Interestingly, Rock notes that, “the threat response is often triggered in social situations…many studies now show that the brain equates social needs with survival; for example, being hungry and being ostracized activate similar neural responses.”

As such, our goal as business leaders should be to have as few people experience the threat response as possible. Why? Because it actually uses up oxygen and glucose from the blood, hindering people’s analytical thinking, creativity, and problem solving skills.

What’s more, it creates transactional employees who give less of themselves to your company. Rock writes, “people who feel betrayed or unrecognized at work…experience it as a neural response, as powerful and painful as a blow to the head…they also limit their commitment and engagement.”

Can you think of people in your organization who need more recognition?

The SCARF Model

What else minimizes the threat response? Turns out, autonomy is as important today as it was in 1776. It’s one of the five social qualities outlined in Rock’s S.C.A.R.F. model:

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness

In a piece for Psychology Today, Rock explains that we can give the perception of autonomy by defining the end result and acceptable behaviors, rather than defining the exact process to get there. It’s like giving someone the address to a restaurant and the time you’ll meet them there, instead of giving them street by street directions. You may also consider the value of implementing a social recognition program that recognizes people for living out the accepted values of your organization.

Susan Fowler, author of Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging, gives similar advice in her recent Harvard Business Review article:

  1. Position goals and timelines as essential to an employee’s success.
  2. Be wary of gamification.
  3. “Don’t apply pressure to perform.”

Business Benefits of Autonomy

Promoting autonomy—allowing employees to make at least some decisions on their own—does more than minimize perceived social threats in the workplace. According to research compiled by Belle Beth Cooper at Quartz, individual and team autonomy can:

  • Increase productivity
  • Boost satisfaction
  • Lower turnover
  • Increase engagement
  • Alleviate negative emotions
  • Decrease emotional exhaustion

One study even showed that lack of job control put British civil servants at a higher risk of heart disease than even smoking.

The Right Balance

Just like our founding fathers, we all crave autonomy and control over our work. But don’t forget the importance of the other four social qualities in the SCARF model:

  • Status: This can be threatened by the traditional performance review. “The perception of status increases when people are given praise.”
  • Certainty: Be as transparent as possible to increase trust and minimize uncertainty.
  • Relatedness: Collaboration at work is nearly impossible without healthy relationships. Give employees frequent opportunities for social connection.
  • Fairness: Grow the winners’ circle so more people are rewarded for great work.

What are some ways you encourage independence and autonomy in your organization? How do you see the other social qualities play out at work?

We’d love to hear from you. Have a safe and fun holiday weekend!


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