Restoring Employee Autonomy in a World on Lockdown


As citizens of prosperous democratic countries, we’ve grown accustomed to the abundant liberties that go along with the privileges of that status. For years we’ve been able to go pretty much wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted, as long as we weren’t breaking the law or infringing the rights of others.

No longer. With mandatory lockdowns across the globe, more than 3.9 billion people—half of all living human beings—have been asked by their governments to stay home. And it’s having enormous impacts on our sense of autonomy, or the feeling that we are in control of our lives. Leaders who want to thrive through this moment would do well to embrace the science and boost their employees’ sense of autonomy whenever possible.

Why the coronavirus crisis is so threatening

The coronavirus crisis is unprecedented in many ways—as NLI scientist Jay Van Bavel has pointed out, our use of the word “unprecedented” is itself unprecedented—but loss of freedom on this scale truly is novel.

We now find it extremely disorienting that the freedoms we once took for granted—to go to work, to see friends, to drink at bars and eat at restaurants, to go to the park or the beach or the cinema—have vaporized overnight. Even for those of us who make this sacrifice willingly, losing the ability to go for a walk outside can be a shocking and disheartening privation.

Psychologically, the coronavirus crisis has affected well-being in three main areas: certaintyautonomy, and relatedness. Together, these form three components of the NeuroLeadership Institute’s SCARF® Model, which defines the five domains in which human beings are particularly sensitive to feelings of threat.

First, the pandemic has laden us with more uncertainty than most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. In the presence of a pathogen that could kill any one of us, we’re confronted with unending unknowns about our health, our jobs, our finances, and our loved ones. Second, the virus has precipitated a painful decline in relatedness—social connection—at the very moment we need it most.

NLI has written about how to reduce uncertainty by understanding the brain’s response to threat, and how to increase relatedness at a time when socializing in person is impossible. But what about autonomy—the feeling of being in control of our own choices?

Autonomy threat can be a matter of life and death

The sudden loss of control we’re all experiencing is dangerous because autonomy is important for health, well-being, and cognitive function. Around the world, for instance, psychosocial prosperity—which includes autonomy—has been found to predict well-being. And employees with more autonomy report greater job satisfaction and less anxiety.

More recently, a 2020 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that having high “job control”—the ability to make decisions about what to work on and how to do it—can actually reduce an employee’s risk of dying.

That’s because job control interacts with “job demands” like workload, time pressure, and concentration requirements. For employees with high job control, the study found, demanding jobs correlated with better physical health and a lower likelihood of dying, possibly because they had the ability to schedule their work time so as to manage job demands or make time to exercise.

For employees with low job control, on the other hand, high job demands had no effect on physical health, but they did lead to a deterioration of mental health, and consequently, a greater risk of dying. For people with highly demanding jobs, in other words, a sense of autonomy can actually be a matter of life and death.

Providing unexpected autonomy

If the absence of job control is so threatening to health and well-being, then what can leaders do to reduce threats to autonomy at a time when many of us can’t even leave our homes?

By providing employees with unexpected autonomy whenever possible.

Research shows that the mere anticipation of making a choice increases activity in the ventral striatum—a brain region associated with reward—suggesting that autonomy is inherently rewarding. If you’re a parent, you probably already know that saying, “It’s time to put on your jacket,” doesn’t work nearly as well as giving your child a choice: “Do you want to wear your green jacket or your red jacket?”

Unexpected autonomy could mean, for instance, giving employees control over their own time and work schedule, or letting them have final say over decisions that were never up to them before. And since unexpected rewards affect us more powerfully, providing autonomy when employees don’t expect it is an effective way to reduce threat.

There’s no way around it: the loss of freedom and control that comes with being forced to stay home is threatening for everyone, especially in combination with the concurrent decline in certainty and relatedness. But by providing unexpected autonomy wherever possible, leaders can help employees find the balance they need to thrive in these challenging times.

Author: Jay Dixit

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