In 1772, all tea from the East India Trading Company was required to be delivered to the United Kingdom and sold to traders through the London Tea Auction.
Those traders would buy tea at auction and pay an import tax to be able to sell it in the American colonies. The traders would add a markup on top of the price paid and add the equivalent of a sales tax on top.
Entrepreneurial American colonists saw a chance for arbitrage: they could buy tea from the Dutch to bypass the import tax in London, ship directly to the colonies, and avoid charging the tea tax because there was no way for the British government to track the shipments.
In the process, these early entrepreneurs nearly put the East India Trading Company out of business, which led the British Parliament to take action. On May 10, 1773, they passed the Tea Act, which allowed East India to begin shipping tea directly to the colonies, bypassing the London tea markets and import tax. This made their prices more competitive and allowed the government to increase revenue through the sales tax charged at the point of sale.
And that is the context which led to the Boston Tea Party, when the Sons of Liberty threw East India’s imported tea overboard from their ships in the Boston Harbor.
We learned all of this in grade school history class, so what, exactly, does this have to do with finding meaning at work?
Well, how often have you ever stopped to ask why the colonists were so furious that they were willing to dress up like Native Americans and risk their lives by throwing tea overboard?
The simple answer is: they rejected the authority of the British Parliament to tax the colonies… but why?
Because they wanted the autonomy to control their own lives. They wanted representation in parliament so that they could have a voice in the decision making.
In other words, the Boston Tea Party and the ensuing Revolutionary War are prime (and extreme) examples of just how far humans are willing to go in order to experience autonomy in life.
The same principle applies at work. Autonomy is one of the key pieces of the puzzle when it comes to finding fulfillment in your own work, as well as building high performing teams. (It also speaks to why so many people choose to become entrepreneurs and side hustlers.)
Autonomy at Work: The Key to Performance, Job Satisfaction and Innovation
The body of research supporting the importance of autonomy at work is large and growing.
Gensler, a design and architectural firm, commissioned their 2013 Workplace Survey to uncover findings on the importance of culture, workspace, and organizational performance.
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Gensler CEO Diane Hoskins outlines their findings on the importance of autonomy at work:
We found that knowledge workers whose companies allow them to help decide when, where, and how they work were more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, performed better, and viewed their company as more innovative than competitors that didn’t offer such choices.
Hoskins cited examples like Facebook employees being able to choose the height, layout, and configuration of their desks. This is just one way Facebook gives their employees autonomy that leads to greater workplace satisfaction because the employee feels a sense of ownership over their space.
Space, of course, is not the only form of autonomy that leads to higher performance and satisfaction. Goal-setting is another key aspect of creating a sense of autonomy at work.
While organizational goals may come from the executive team in a big company, or you as entrepreneur may set the high level goals for your team, that doesn’t have to relegate employees to simply following orders.
Instead, organizational goals can serve as the theoretical sandbox where employees are allowed to play. Within that sandbox, they might decide to build a castle, dig a moat, or bury their friend. Allowing employees to set their own goals is proven to increase their feelings of autonomy, and, subsequently, job performance.
Whether it’s workspace design, goal-setting, or another method for establishing a sense of autonomy, the message in the research is clear: autonomy matters to us. A lack of autonomy leads to poor performance, interpersonal conflict, absenteeism, and turnover at work… Just like the Sons of Liberty throwing tea overboard, a lack of autonomy creates a similar feeling and reaction on a smaller scale.
So, how do we apply this to building teams (and our own work)?
How to Create Autonomy for You and Your Team
In their paper on “Intrinsic Need Satisfaction,” Baard, Deci, and Ryan describe autonomy as “experiencing choice and feeling like the initiator of one’s own actions.”
With this in mind, let’s get more practical about how you can find more autonomy in your work, as well as create more autonomy for your team. I’ve written each of these four suggestions from the perspective of an entreprenerur/manager, but change the wording a bit and they work just as well for employees.
- Set a clear vision for the organization – it is much easier for each employee to understand the importance of her work when the vision for the organization is clear. This allows each employee to set personal goals that move the organization closer to the stated vision. Work hard to have a clear Big Hairy Audacious Goal (as Jim Collins puts it), as well as a longer-term mission for the organization. Communicate this to employees often. As an employee, make sure you fully understand the mission and vision of the organization so you can be a meaningful contributor to both.
- Work with employees to help them “craft their own job” – “job crafting” is how academics refer to the process you follow when you exercise autonomy in what tasks you do at work, as well as when, where, and how they get done. Organizations always establish the basic duties and goals of each role through job descriptions. Job crafting is how you take that job description and make it your own to reach the goals of your role.
- Encourage employees to plan their own projects and delivery timelines – much like job crafting applies to how an employee make the high-level job her own, projects can be treated the same. Micromanagers might have a tendency to want to plan every step of a project, ensuring the job is done exactly as they would have done it themselves. Great managers know that stating the desired outcome of each project and final deadline is enough. They allow the team to set specific project tasks and milestones throughout the larger timeline. This gives employees a strong sense of ownership over each project, in addition to their sense of ownership over their jobs.
- Hold employees accountable to their goals – autonomy is a magical tool for managers and employees alike, but it’s only as good as the results it produces. Managers have to hold employees accountable to their goals to make sure the organization keeps moving in the right direction. That can take many forms, from weekly coaching meetings to annual reviews and everything in between. Employees to track their own performance against their goals. Managers should work with employees to review that performance and improve it when necessary.
Autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the three keys to finding fulfillment in our work. Managers (including entrepreneurs) and employees can work together to make sure each of these is present in the work.
Autonomy comes from each employee feeling they have control over their specific projects and tasks, as well as how, when, and where they work.
While that might seem like a tall order, every person can take small actions to move closer to that reality at work. And if you find yourself running up against a brick wall over and over in the pursuit of autonomy, it might be time to throw that tea overboard (or simply find what’s next for your career).