This guest post by David Burkus was inspired by concepts from chapter twelve of his new book, Under New Management. (Which I highly recommend!)

Decades of research has revealed that giving employees more control over their destiny greatly improves productivity and engagement.

Are managers necessary in this day and age?

While some leaders have opted to eliminate managers altogether, and others have found ways to push some of the management function down to those who are being managed, research suggests that employees are most productive and engaged when they control their own destiny, regardless of how many managers their company has.

For several decades, two researchers have been at the core of trying to discover what drives human motivation, particularly what produces intrinsic motivation (the drive to engage in behaviors not because of external rewards but because of internal desire). Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, both professors at the University of Rochester, began their research in the 1970s by looking into motivation and its root causes. Their work would later be codified as ‘self-determination theory’ and be expounded upon by legions of scholars around the world.

In one study, Deci and Ryan (along with Paul Baard of Fordham University) studied frontline employees at a major American investment bank. For the study, 528 employees attended a departmental meeting where they were given a packet of questionnaires designed to measure a variety of constructs, including perceived autonomy support, which was a measure of how much their bosses considered their point of view, gave useful feedback, and provided them with choice over what to do and how to do it. The employees were also asked to submit their most recent performance evaluation.

The researchers found a significant correlation between employees’ perceptions of autonomy and their overall performance. In short, the more managers cede control over what to do and how to do it, the more employees do it well.

Building off of Deci and Ryan’s work, the research has proven the benefits of autonomy all over the world. In one study of working conditions and management practices in Nike’s manufacturing plants, a team of researchers led by Richard Locke compared two identical T-shirt factories in Mexico.

The two plants had virtually everything in common, from the products they produced to their economic, social, and political environments to the level of union presence in each plant. What differed between the two plants was the level of autonomy given to factory workers.

In Plant A, workers were given freedom to organize themselves into teams, create work schedules, plan production targets, and divide up the various tasks. In Plant B, the workers were controlled and managed much more strictly, with production schedules and roles dictated by management. Locke and his team found that Plant A was almost twice as productive as Plant B, creating an average of 150 shirts per day versus Plant B’s 80. In addition, Plant A produced those shirts at 40 percent lower cost, despite paying higher wages.

Muammer Ozer at City University of Hong Kong found that not only does autonomy positively affect employees’ performance, but it can also make them more loyal and responsible members of the organization. Ozer collected surveys from 266 jewelry workers and also from a coworker of each respondent and the immediate supervisor. The workers answered questions designed to measure the extent to which they had control over their jobs and also the extent to which they were willing to engage in routine organizational citizenship behaviors, such as helping their coworkers or offering ideas to improve the company’s performance.

Coworkers were asked questions about the strength of their relationship with the surveyed workers, and supervisors were asked to rate their performance. After he collected and analyzed all of the data, Ozer found that autonomy significantly influenced the workers’ willingness to be good organizational citizens and also increased the strength of team relationships. That in turn had a significantly positive effect on job performance. In short, more autonomous individuals are better citizens, better friends, and better performers.

This relationship finding is an important one, since autonomy isn’t the same thing as independence. Autonomy is about having control over how you work, but it doesn’t automatically mean that you work alone. “Autonomy means to act volitionally, with a sense of choice,” write Deci and Ryan. “Whereas independence means to function alone and not rely on others.” Thus, it’s possible to be autonomous but also interdependent with coworkers, relying on their work to support your own effort. In fact, the desire for autonomy (unlike the desire for individualism) appears to be a universal concept and not a cultural one.

Autonomy also isn’t the same thing as anarchy.

In the workplace, it’s about giving responsible freedom to employees, but different companies experiment with different levels of giving up control. Some industries and organizations find that they can’t become totally managerless but they can in fact give some level of control back to individuals. “A financial analyst once asked me if I was afraid of losing control of our organization,” wrote Herb Kelleher, the former CEO of Southwest Airlines, describing an objection to how employees are empowered to solve a variety of customer issues without needing to consult policy books or supervisors. “I told him I’ve never had control and never wanted it.

If you create an environment where the people truly participate, you don’t need control.” Kelleher’s words echo the experience of Valve’s leaders and corroborate the decades of research into the power of autonomy. No matter how many or how few managers you have on staff, if your staff doesn’t feel that they can control their own work, their work will suffer.

When individuals feel that they’re free to determine what they’re working on or how they work, they are more motivated, more loyal, and more productive.

To benefit from the motivating power of autonomy, leaders don’t need to give up total control and fire all the managers, but every leader does need to consider how their current structure might be limiting the perception of freedom and blocking the organization from its peak potential.

David BurkusScreen Shot 2016-03-14 at 5.44.43 PM is the author of the forthcoming Under New Management.

He is host of the Radio Free Leader podcast and associate professor of management at ORU. Please visit his website at

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