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Autonomy and Responsibility

By Dr. Maureen Snow Andrade, HCI Research Associate

Melissa, a candidate for a manager position, was asked to describe her ideal working conditions. She answered, “autonomy and responsibility,” and explained that she was the most motivated and the most satisfied when she was given responsibilities, including those that stretched her capacity, and the autonomy to fulfill those responsibilities in the way she chose. She indicated preferring a supervisor who recognizes her competencies and potential, assigns her appropriately challenging tasks, and demonstrates trust in her skills by giving her broad parameters in which to accomplish those tasks. She stated that these are the conditions under which she thrives, feels she is making significant contributions, develops new skills, and experiences a sense of accomplishment. She also tells the hiring committee that this is the approach she would take as a manager.

These are also the conditions under which employees exhibit organizational citizenship behavior or choosing to go above and beyond one’s assigned tasks, thereby improving organizational effectiveness (Organ & Ryan, 1995). These behaviors can be focused on co-workers as well as the organization as a whole (Williams & Anderson, 1991). Examples include assisting co-workers with no anticipation of reward, volunteering for assignments, doing more than is required, taking negative situations in stride rather than complaining, attending work-related events, and speaking highly of an organization in external contexts. Antecedents to organizational citizenship behavior are employee perceptions that the organization is committed to them; perceived organizational justice represented by procedures such as pay and performance reviews, decision-making processes, and equity in contributions and rewards; Greenberg, 1987); employee job satisfaction; and personality characteristics such as conscientiousness and agreeableness (Organ & Ryan, 1995; Organ et al., 2006; Podsakoff et al., 2000; Podsakoff et al., 2009).

Relevant Theories

Although perhaps not realizing it, in her response, Melissa identified the central components of several motivation and leadership theories. These provide guiding direction for managers in any organization, and when followed, contribute to employee satisfaction, productivity, and organizational effectiveness. The most salient include the following.

Self-determination theory reflects a person’s psychological need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy involves having control over what one does, competence reflects mastery and effectiveness in one’s activities, and relatedness emphasizes connectedness and belonging (Deci & Ryan, 2002). In her interview, Melissa emphasized a need for autonomy and competence. She values having control over her work and demonstrating and developing competencies through her responsibilities. Another interview question might elicit her feelings about the importance of a collegial and congenial working environment.

Motivation 3.0 is similar to self-determination theory and also has three components—autonomy, mastery, and purpose (Pink, 2009). Autonomy reflects being in control of one’s work and activities, mastery entails improving one’s skills and oneself, and purpose involves working toward something meaningful and worthwhile. Once again, Melissa expressed a clear preference for working conditions characterized by autonomy and mastery and the opportunity to make meaningful contributions.

The job characteristics model integrates ideas from both self-determination theory and motivation 3.0 but also identifies the core job characteristics that lead to psychological states such as meaningfulness, responsibility for work, and knowledge of results. These in turn produce outcomes such as motivation, growth, job satisfaction, and work effectiveness. The advantage of this model is its specificity in helping managers understand how to design effective work environments.

In short, if Melissa’s supervisor gives her a variety of tasks and the opportunity to learn new skills (skill variety), structures the work so that the finished product is evident (task identity) and its impact on others is visible (task significance), allows Melissa to do the work as she sees fit (autonomy), and gives her focused performance feedback, then Melissa’s need for autonomy, responsibility, and meaningfulness will be fulfilled. The organization will benefit from her job satisfaction in the form of organizational citizenship behaviors and organizational goals will be achieved.

Finally, path-goal leadership theory argues that leaders should set transparent goals and create a path to help employees reach them. This might include providing resources, professional development opportunities, or mentoring. This approach entails tailoring goals and pathways based on individual employees’ skills, abilities, and needs. Thus, managers must be familiar with the personalities and capacities of the individuals they lead.

Lessons Learned

So why was Melissa seeking a new job? Her current position was one in which she had been given few responsibilities she could call her own. She was micromanaged, and at the supervisor’s beck and call, primarily in a supportive role with limited freedom to perform responsibilities independently. These conditions were frustrating, and created feelings of being underutilized and underappreciated, which could lead to underperformance, and in this case, to turnover.

Managers must understand motivational issues and create conditions under which their employees can contribute, be involved, and do their best work. The theories reviewed offer common themes and specific strategies for effective management.


Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (Eds.) (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Greenberg, J. (1987). A taxonomy of organizational justice theories. Academy of Management Review, 12(1), 9-22.

Organ, D. W. (1988). Organizational citizenship behavior: The good soldier syndrome. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Organ, D. W., Podsakoff, P. M., & MacKenzie S. P. (2006). Organizational citizenship behavior: Its nature, antecedents, and consequences. London: Sage Publications.

Pink, Dan. 2009. Drive. New York: Riverhead Books.

Podsakoff, P. M., MacKenzie, S. B., Paine, J. B., & Bachrach, D. G. (2000). Organizational citizenship behaviors: A critical review of the theoretical and empirical literature and suggestions for future research. Journal of Management, 26(3), 513-563.

Podsakoff, N. P., Blume, B. D., Whiting, S. W., & Podsakoff, P. M. (2009). Individual- and organizational-level consequences of organizational citizenship behaviors: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(1), 122-141.

Williams, L. J., & Anderson, S. E. (1991). Job satisfaction and organizational commitment as predictors of organizational citizenship and in-role behaviors. Journal of Management, 17(3), 601-617.



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