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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.