Autonomy, passion and performance at work through learning

First published on People First.

“It seems surreal that a lot of people sit at their desks doing nothing productive just so they can show attendance.”

I believe we’ve all heard the phrase ‘autonomy, mastery and purpose’ before. It’s supposed to play a big role in our lives, specifically at work. And it does!

As capable adults, we can and want to make our own decisions, and we should be trusted to do so.

We want autonomy over when, how and where we work or learn, and we want to become masters in what we do. That should be our purpose, or at least part of it.

A study published on Chron, a US newspaper, “shows that when employees are given the freedom associated with autonomy, job satisfaction rises. It’s theorized that this increased level of job satisfaction in employees stems from a feeling of greater responsibility for the quality of their work.” CIPHR claims that “Autonomy may also be the most important factor when nurturing a culture of engagement within a company.” And that makes sense, because if I have responsibility over what I do and how and when I do it, I usually put more effort into it than when someone tells me to do something, and am more satisfied with the results if I’ve done well. We already have (mostly) full autonomy in all other aspects of our lives, we are allowed to decide to rent or buy a house, have a pet or even kids. Why shouldn’t we be able to decide to work from home on Tuesday afternoon or leave early on Friday if we have finished all our work? It seems surreal that a lot of people sit at their desks doing nothing productive just so they can show attendance.

In a recent workshop I facilitated, ‘How to create a Learning and Development strategy without a budget’, we discussed people’s passions and (interview) questions you can ask to figure out what future or current employees are particularly passionate about in their job. However, we kind of came to the conclusion that unfortunately not everyone enjoys what they are doing or are particularly passionate about work. Most people work because they need to pay rent and buy food. They might work in a field they are vaguely interested in or ‘were always good at’, but the real question might be: what would people do if they didn’t have the pressure of having to earn money?

In the workshop, we explored more questions such as ‘Would you still work (here) if you won the lottery?’ and a lot of the answers were ‘I would probably do something else, something that I am more passionate about. Also, I would work part-time!’ Now there’s a thought… Volunteering came up, too.

We then went on to the topic of a universal basic income, where people would receive a set amount of money but without fulfilling any conditions. So, if people didn’t have the pressure of going to work to earn money, they could choose a job they really liked and actually put in a better performance because they now have an intrinsic motivation to do so. Of course, there will always be people that might not be so lucky and jobs that need doing whether or not someone actually wants to do them. But more people might be able to afford the luxury of working just to earn extra cash, to go on holidays and shopping – because that would also boost the economy. We’d get a similar effect by reducing working hours or give people the freedom to work in a ‘ROWE’ – a results-only-work-environment, where everyone can decide when and how they work, giving them an opportunity to fit it around their lifestyles – as long as they deliver results. There is a really great book I can recommend reading, written by two former HR employees who are the founding sisters of ROWE: ‘Why work sucks and how to fix it’. NatWest is also currently doing an amazing initiative by helping people to Rethink [their] business, where working fewer hours is better for business – the one people work for and the ones those people then spend their money in after work.

Research from the University in Birmingham from two years ago also shows that flexibility and autonomy at work has positive effects on those who get to enjoy it, such as a greater well-being: “For women, flexibility over the timing and location of their work appeared to be more beneficial allowing them to balance other tasks such as family commitments” [, … including] caring responsibilities. […] Men were found to be more impacted by job tasks, pace of work, and task order.”

There are of course things we can do to motivate people now. An example is task shifting, where people can train each other if they are bored with doing the same tasks and let’s be honest, that happens all the time.

If we can have people collaborating and take on aspects from each other, from more experienced colleagues, they can then in turn take on new aspects themselves. This way people autonomously develop and master new skills, perform better and hopefully bring with it more passion and purpose into work.

What we need are tools that people can use to learn and learn from each other, communication technology such as Skype or even WhatsApp and of course opportunities to teach each other in person. Such peer-to-peer learning is one way of providing support for people to be able to reach their goals and receive immediate feedback, something we all crave so we know we’re doing alright.

So most importantly, we all need measurable goals to achieve and we need to know how they fit into the wider company picture. If we have the right tools and support, both of which can be provided by social or peer-to-peer and on the job learning, to achieve our goals and bring the results, we should only be measured on these, not on the time spent at our desks – which brings us right back to the earlier mentioned examples of shortened working hours and a results-only-working environment (ROWE).

Another great book to read in this aspect is Daniel Pink’s ‘Drive’ because in it he explains that, to create a work environment where employees are intrinsically motivated and thus more passionate about what they do and how they do it to achieve great results and perform better, you need to focus on the three key factors of autonomy, mastery and purpose:

  1. Through providing autonomy at work you trust and encourage people to take ownership of their own work and skill development. Remember to measure them on their achievements!
  2. People should see no limits to their potential and be given the tools and support they need to continue to improve their skills.
  3. Encourage them to use their skills to achieve a ‘greater’ purpose. This can be outside of work, for instance, getting involved in a ‘good cause’ and charity work that they are passionate about.

So, in one sentence: working conditions should provide as much autonomy as possible and people should only be measured on their performance, if companies want more passion and engagement at work.

If you would like to find out how to use learning to boost the performance and passion of your employees, have a watch of my DisruptHR Nottingham video [5 min] or read the blog Talent attraction and retention: what employees want, what they really, really want.

To attend a workshop, contact me.

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