Autonomy is important for creativity, but it’s not for everyone…

During my doctoral research on creativity in startup and established companies, I reviewed a lot of earlier research on factors that affected creativity and productivity in organizations.

Autonomy was one of the strongest factors identified by Amabile, Ekvall, Burgleman, and many more (including my own research). Autonomy in the context of organizations is the freedom to try things without having to ask permission, and without fearing the consequences of failure. The more autonomy you give employees, the more they try to solve problems themselves, and the more creative and productive they become. General Patton said “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

On the other hand, when you restrict employee autonomy, employees become less creative and productive. They will come to you with every little question and obstacle and expect you to solve it for them. You may not want to restrict employee creativity intentionally, but sometimes the way you behave when an employee fails will deter him or her from ever attempting anything autonomous.

Not all employees can handle autonomy. Back in 1990 I led a team of some 20 engineers developing alarm systems in Israel. I was the embodiment of a “micro-manager” at the time. I’m pretty sure that the dictionary definition of a “micro-manager” included my picture. I didn’t give employees autonomy through my actions, or my words. I followed the quote attributed to Henry Ford: “Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?” I wanted my employees to do exactly what I told them to, and exactly the way I told them to do it, and I didn’t give them the best feeling if they didn’t do what I said. But enough about me…

Two of my employees were involved in the development of a system that had to pass the French safety regulations. We submitted the system and failed the first time. I was too busy with another system, such that at some point I called both employees to my office and told them that starting that moment they were responsible for the project, and for its success or failure. We were going to meet once a week for a brief status update, but I wasn’t going to tell them what to do anymore.

They began working. After about two months they submitted the system to the French authorities, and it failed again. I was still too busy to take away their new autonomy, so they kept going. A couple of months later they submitted again, but this time it passed. We now had a system that could be (and in fact did) sell in France.

The entire experience puzzled me. So I asked them into my office. Individually. I asked them about their feelings and overall experience working autonomously on this product. The first employee was thrilled. He was excited to be responsible for the success or failure of the project, and to not be told what to do anymore. He was definitely more creative and productive, and I should add — successful. However, when the second employee came into my office, he told me that he felt the opposite: “I felt that you dumped this project in our laps because you didn’t want to deal with it anymore. You made it OUR problem and not yours.”

A study conducted at the Liverpool Hope University School of Business in 2014 showed that (at least at small and medium enterprises) 78% of employees perceived work autonomy as important to them. The study showed that autonomy had a positive effect on creativity and productivity (it is one of the strongest factors on those) and thus supported that same conclusion, but also showed that more employees embrace it than not.

We need to remember that not ALL employees embrace autonomy. Some fear it. It doesn’t make them bad employees, but we need to be careful when assuming that if research showed that employee autonomy improves creativity and productivity, then it is true for all employees. Before giving autonomy to an employee, we must assess whether that employee has a positive attitude towards autonomy or not. Autonomy is critical for creativity, but it’s not for everyone.

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