All Anyone Really Wants at Work Is Autonomy

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Hey, congrats! You’ve been offered a promotion. Instead of working like you have been — off in your own little bubble, setting your own goals, with no direct reports — your new role will give you much greater influence throughout the company. You’ll be supervising a team, helping to motivate and direct them toward goals set by upper management.

There is, however, a teensy catch: Your new title doesn’t actually come with any more money than your current one. But think of the prestige — the power!

So. Will you take it?

No, you most likely would not, according to the findings of a study involving more than 2,000 people across three continents, published recently in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Across nine experiments, the researchers — from the University of Cologne, the University of Groningen, and Columbia University — consistently found that, although employees without a lot of power do indeed desire more of it, ultimately “gaining autonomy quenches the desire for power.” In other words: A role that grants you the freedom to do mostly what you want to do, how you want to do it, is much more appealing to most people than a role that involves bossing a lot of minions around.

In one experiment, the researchers — led by Joris Lammers at the University of Cologne — guided people through the above thought experiment. About half of the participants were asked to imagine that they already held a high-autonomy position and were being offered a high-influence position, one in which they would be managing a team of subordinates. The other half were asked to imagine the scenario the other way around: What if they already were managing a bunch of people but were offered the chance to trade that for more freedom?

Overwhelmingly, people chose autonomy. Of those who already had a position that gave them a lot of freedom, 74 percent turned down the hypothetical promotion; of those who held the current job that afforded them more influence within their company, 62 percent accepted the promotion to the higher-autonomy position. In other words: People were nearly two and a half times more likely to take a job that gave them more autonomy than they were to want a job that gave them more influence.

Other experiments recounted in the paper — involving study volunteers from the U.S., the Netherlands, and India — back this up: When people were afforded autonomy, their desire for power faded. In their final experiment, the researchers surveyed nearly 1,000 readers of the Dutch business magazine Intermediair, asking them to indicate their position within the company’s hierarchy, as well as their perceived amount of autonomy and influence within the firm. They also asked the readers whether they currently wished they had more power at their current company. Again, when people felt as if they had a lot of freedom, their desire for power diminished.

Previous research, in fact, has confirmed that people are indeed attracted to power when they think about the freedom that may come with it — but they are less interested when they remember all of the extra responsibilities and expectations and general bother that will also likely come along. And yet it’s so easy to forget this when a shiny new title and the promise that others will listen to you — because it will be their literal jobs to do so — are dangled before you.

One caveat: This new research didn’t account for the role of compensation. Maybe a substantial bump in pay would make a difference here, and people would indeed be more willing to give up some of their autonomy in exchange for some cold, hard cash. Or maybe not — or maybe they would but would later regret the decision. These are questions for future research. For now, the overall message of this paper feels very true: Maybe all anyone really wants at work is to be left the hell alone.