Great Leadership Gives People Autonomy

Great leadership is the ability to inspire and guide a group of people towards a common goal

Great leaders set a clear vision, communicating effectively, and building trust and collaboration among team members.

These leaders are able to motivate and empower others to perform at their best, and they are able to make difficult decisions and solve problems effectively. They also demonstrate strong character and integrity, and they lead by example. Great leadership requires a combination of charisma, intelligence, and practical skills, as well as a deep understanding of the people and the organization being led.

Great leadership is characterized by all kinds of activities and attributes, but providing employees with autonomy may be among the most impactful. New data suggests autonomy has significant effects on everything from performance and culture to retention and wellbeing.

But autonomy doesn’t mean totally free choice or abandonment of accountability. Quite the reverse: Autonomy must be provided with productive limits and meaningful constraints to have the best effects.

The Business Case for Autonomy

Giving people more choice and control in their work is a really good idea, and new data proves the case—making autonomy a worthy focus for leaders.


When employees had the opportunity to decide on when they worked, they were 2.3 times more likely to achieve great performance compared to those with less autonomy, according to a study by Gartner.


When they had greater choice, 83% of employees had a positive outlook on their organization’s culture, compared with 47% of those who lacked control—according to a study from Atlassian.


With greater choice, employees were 2.3 times more likely to stay with their organization, according to the Gartner data.


Greater flexibility in work also affected innovation positively, according to data from Atlassian. Specifically, 71% reported they were innovative, compared with 57% without choices.


  • When employees had more autonomy in their work, they were 1.9 times less likely to experience fatigue, based on the Gartner data.
  • In addition, when people high-stress jobs had less control over their workflow, their health and longevity were negatively affected. But those with greater autonomy in decision making did not experience the same negative health effects, according to two separate studies conducted at Indiana University.
  • And when people had more control over their work-life boundaries and were able to manage the intrusions by smart devices, they tended to have less stress, reduced worry and better sleep, according to a study by the University of Illinois.
  • In addition, with greater choices, only 14% of people reported feeling burnout, compared with 36% who lacked control, according to the Atlassian study.

Limitations and Leadership

Great results demand autonomy—but this doesn’t mean providing autonomy with abandon. People still value clarity, limits and accountability.

#1 – Autonomy and Expectations

In a period where so much information is coming at people all the time, clarity can help reduce the overwhelm. Neurologically, people tend to avoid ambiguity and prefer certainty, so providing clarity on goals and expectations can be especially empowering.

Too much autonomy can leave people feeling adrift—unsure of what they must accomplish, by when and how it matters to the company. Wise leaders instead give people direction and connect their work to a broader purpose. They explain how people’s work affects the work of others inside and outside the organization—and they set expectations about the quality of the work and the outcomes people must accomplish. This clarity helps to reduce ambiguity and the stress that can accompany it.

#2 – Autonomy and Empathy

Great leaders are also empathetic, and when they demonstrate empathy all kinds of great things happen for people and organizations—including better performance, engagement, innovation and wellbeing.

Empathy is related to autonomy as well, because people value different kinds of choice. Some employees may thrive by having more control over their work hours so they can knock off early to watch a child’s soccer game or care for an elder family member, and then pick up later to finish their deliverables. For others, choices about the kind of work they do may be most meaningful—having opportunities to do developmental work or take on initiatives outside of their typical responsibilities. And for others, having influence over the team members they invite to their project may be the biggest perk.

Take an empathetic approach by focusing on each person’s needs and asking them what they value—providing the kinds of autonomy which are the best match to their priorities and their role. Different work will have constraints, of course, but when you can balance the needs of the job with the unique desires of the employee, it has positive impacts—whether it’s providing greater choice in when, where, how or with whom their work is accomplished.

#3 – Autonomy and Accountability

It is a myth that autonomy doesn’t also come along with accountability. While you want to provide greater levels of choice, it’s also necessary to hold people responsible for results. It’s also a myth that people don’t want to be held accountable. In fact, accountability is related to value and recognition.

When leaders hold people accountable, they send a message they value the person’s work, their involvement and their contribution. When employees’ work measures up, it’s a great opportunity to give recognition. And when it doesn’t, the feedback leaders provide demonstrates they care about employees’ improvement and development.

Great leaders pay attention to the work people do, give feedback on it and reward employees when it’s stellar.

A Flexible Future

The future of work will certainly be flexible, and it will include more choices for employees. But for the best work experience, autonomy will need to come along with caveats. As the world of work moves forward, there will be more to learn about how employees stay engaged and connected—and about how flexibility is balanced with results.

Author Profile

Lee Clarke
Lee Clarke
Business And Features Writer


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