The Paradox of Autonomy

Autonomy, an individual’s sense of being in control over his or her own choices or behaviors, has always been an important component of one’s work motivation. Employees who have more autonomy have a large amount of freedom and discretion in carrying out assigned tasks and, because of this, are more motivated than those with less autonomy. As a result, they are more likely to have better performance, be more creative and are more satisfied with work.[1],[2],[3]

The positive effects of giving employees autonomy is especially strong in work group settings. Giving teams control over task-related decisions can enable them to perform with more effectiveness and encourage innovative methods.[4] Team members with the freedom of making their own work choices and allocating work resources are more likely to take more responsibilities, hold themselves accountable and are more likely to take risks.[5] For this reason, self-managed teams have been widely adopted in modern organizations, big or small.

But the positive results of autonomy doesn’t mean more autonomy is always better. In some cases, giving team members too much freedom can lead to negative consequences.

At the group level, team members from a highly autonomous and trusting team are less likely to monitor each other’s work quality and progress. This lack of monitoring can result in low team performance.[6]

Meanwhile, giving too much autonomy to each group member can result in low group cohesiveness.4 Group cohesiveness is where group members like and interact with other group members and want to remain part of the group. Individual autonomy can lead to decreased interpersonal interaction, which causes each group member to identify more with their own tasks and less with their group membership. Therefore, group membership can be less important for more autonomous individuals, which causes the group to be less cohesive and less productive. Such low interpersonal interaction caused by high levels of autonomy can isolate team members from knowledge and input from others,[7] which can also hurt the performance of the team.

It is also suggested that when leaders give job autonomy unconditionally, followers are more likely to feel stressed, nervous and overwhelmed.[8] Moreover, leaders can’t give autonomy to group members without proper instruction and preparation, especially when the tasks are new and the employees do not have sufficient knowledge of how to perform the tasks.[9] A lot of autonomy can hurt the performance of individuals who are often soft-hearted, courteous, forgiving, trusting and cooperative.[10] These individuals thrive in a more structured and cooperative work environment.

All in all, leaders who want to use autonomy as the means to motivate employees should be aware of the negative impacts of offering an unregulated amount of it. Using it in the right conditions and to the right people is the key to building a successful work team.

[1] Zhou, J. (1998). Feedback valence, feedback style, task autonomy, and achievement orientation: Interactive effects on creative performance. Journal of applied psychology83, 261-276.

[2] Morgeson, F. P., Delaney-Klinger, K., & Hemingway, M. A. (2005). The importance of job autonomy, cognitive ability, and job-related skill for predicting role breadth and job performance. Journal of applied psychology90, 399.

[3] Weaver, C. N. (1977). Relationships among pay, race, sex, occupational prestige, supervision, work autonomy, and job satisfaction in a national sample. Personnel Psychology30, 437-445.

[4] Langfred, C.W. (2000). The paradox of self-management: Individual and group autonomy in work groups. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 21, 563-585.

[5] Yun, S., Cox, J., & Sims, H.P., Jr. (2006). The forgotten follower: A contingency model of leadership and follower self-leadership. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 21, 374–388.

[6] Langfred, C.W. (2004). Too much of a good thing? Negative effects of high trust and individual autonomy in self-managing teams. Academy of Management Journal, 47, 385-399.

[7] Haas, M.R.(2010). The double-deged swords of autonomy and external knowledge: Analyszing team effectiveness in a multinational organization. The Academy of Management Journal, 53, 989-1008.

[8] Cheong, M., Spain, S.M., Yammarino, F.J., & Yun, S. (2016). Two faces of empowering leadership: Enabling and burdening. The Leadership Quarterly, 27, 602-616.

[9] Cordery, J.L., Morrison, D., Wright, B.M., & Wall, T.D. (2010). The impact of autonomy and task uncertainty on team performance: A longitudinal field study. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 31, 240-258.

[10] Barrick, M.R., & Mount, M.K. (1993). Autonomy as a moderator of the relationships between the big five personality dimensions and job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78, 111-118.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.



Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.