Choose Your Own Manager? NLI Survey Shows It Could Help Motivate Employees


Research indicates that one of the best ways to motivate employees is to offer them autonomy, or a sense of control over events in their lives. Surprisingly, having increased autonomy is, in many cases, an even stronger motivator than monetary rewards. In an era when leaders are navigating new policies for remote work and trying to retain highly qualified employees, a recent NLI survey of more than 400 participants reveals an innovative way in which individuals can gain autonomy at work: by choosing their supervisor.

Put another way, one way leaders can help employees meet their need for autonomy is, perhaps paradoxically, to allow them to choose who leads them. To be clear, offering employees this choice isn’t a common practice … at least, not yet. However, providing them with such a choice makes sense when we think about the ways that autonomy affects the brain. When a person feels like they have control in decision-making, the anterior insula — a part of the brain located deep within the cerebral cortex — is activated.

"the choice id yours" graph, indicating out of 5 categories, 80% of employees in the individual category chose picking their own manager in theeir top 3 choices for autonomy

As we looked at the survey responses related to “choosing my own supervisor,” an interesting gap emerged. With only 8% of all participants indicating that they have this choice right now, the option was the least common form of autonomy. In contrast, more than 40% of participants had a choice in work schedule, location, and dress code.

All employees indicated that choosing their supervisor was one of their top three choices for autonomy, regardless of level, with 12% of executives, 16% of managers, 13% of individual contributors, 15% of associates, and 9% of entry-level workers interested in having this form of autonomy. Beyond the types of autonomy normally considered, the ability to choose one’s supervisor emerged as a new opportunity for employee choice and one that leaders would be wise to consider.

This finding comes in an era when options for remote work are increasing, as is the competition to recruit and retain employees. This particular form of autonomy identified in the survey is different from simply working from home or having a choice in the dress code. Instead, it points to the ways people want to collaborate with one another, gain insightful feedback, and contribute to a team’s goals.

Even if leaders aren’t able to give complete autonomy to their employees in their choice of immediate supervisors, simply encouraging their managers to have conversations about leadership style with their employees could be useful. Discussing how, as managers, they can offer specific kinds of support would also build rapport and potentially contribute to an employee’s sense of autonomy. In this way, managers can create conditions that lead to substantive changes in employees’ productivity, job satisfaction, and lives.

Author: Troy Hicks, Ph.D.

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