Autonomy in the Workplace

The life of a student, be it undergraduate or postgraduate, is often seen as one where the individual has significant autonomy in there day to day activities. However, when moving to the workplace there is often a need to adapt to organisational norms, which on occasion may make the individual feel like they have little or no autonomy.

This workplace tension often stems from issues such as the need for: a) delivery to clients to be automated, standardised and reliable; Vs b) the need for the individual to have autonomy. This is not a new phenomenon. Herzberg’s (1966) two-factor theory highlighted factors which motivated people at work and those which cause discomfort if there are not present in sufficient quantity. Amongst the former are Responsibility and Opportunities for Personal Growth, whilst amongst the latter is Company Policies.

For those moving to their first professional role this tension is a key factor that is encountered. An internship can be an ideal opportunity to adjust to dealing with this type of tension, particularly in a large organisation. Learning to work with this tension can be a key factor in professional work across a variety of contexts.

As far back as 1924 Elton Mayo conducted experiments on working conditions in the Western Electric factory near Chicago, referred to in the literature as the Hawthorne Studies. Initially it was believed that these studies demonstrated that increased lighting in the work environment positively impacted worker productivity. Later reflection on the research indicated that the increase in worker productivity was in fact due to the increase in interest being shown to them. Perhaps, on occasion, employers’ efforts to meet client needs may result in employees feeling their interests are not being considered, and the research indicates that this may result in a decrease in productivity.

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Martin Coffey

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Career Management Skills Developer, Researcher Development Team.

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