Control vs. Autonomy in Business

Grodnitzky, Ph.D.
April 5, 2022

The relationship between control vs. autonomy in business can be best explained as a microcosm of the macrocosm visible in geopolitics. 

So much going on in the world seems difficult to understand. The world we live in and the behaviors we see can be understood as a function of the interaction between the culture we have built as a global society and the relationship between control vs. autonomy.

The powerful use their power to control their fear of losing control as others gain autonomy. Consider the large empires of the 20th century. Fearing loss, the UK used its military power to try to control Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion. France used military power to try to keep Algeria in its empire. Both Kenya and Algeria are independent, self-governing, autonomous states today. Similarly, Russia’s efforts to use its military power to control Ukraine are the actions of a former superpower trying to regain what it has already lost – control over Ukraine – in an effort to reconstitute its now-dissolved empire.

The use of power in order to control may forestall autonomy for a period of time. But countries can save blood and treasure — and businesses can save time and money — by understanding the trends away from centralized control and toward greater autonomy.

Autonomy of Time

As newly released employment numbers indicate, more and more people are returning to work across all industries. According to, in March 2022, the economy added 431,000 new jobs and the unemployment rate dropped to 3.6%. Some industries and companies are still facing challenges recruiting and retaining talent, but others that are not. Those that are recruiting successfully have found that a key lever is autonomy of time, or the ability for employees to work a schedule that is mutually beneficial for the employee and the employer.  This does not imply that the employee gets to work willy-nilly or have a “work when I want” schedule. This is based on the collaboration/synchronization between the needs of the employee and the employer.

In another survey by Future Forum of almost 11,000 people globally, 44% of organizational leaders who were working from home wanted to return to work in the office full time. Only 17% of employees indicated the same. According to a new survey by Microsoft of 31,102 employees from around the world, 50% of organizational leaders plan to require their employees to return to the office full time in the next 12 months. This represents a challenge, since the same survey found that 52% of employees said they would consider switching jobs so they could work remotely some or all of the time. Leaders want control. Employees want autonomy.

The message is clear: Autonomy is the new currency to recruit and retain talent. Companies that ignore the trend and try to use their power on their employees will find themselves powerless – and hemorrhaging employees.

The Solution:  Recognize the Trend and Take Action

Rather than enter into the adversarial positions of control (leadership) vs. autonomy (employee), the solution is to collaborate in finding a mutually agreeable solution. How?

Step 1:  Conduct One-on-Ones

Leaders and managers should have one-on-one meetings with employees now if you haven’t already. Seek to understand employee and team needs while communicating the business needs. This clear understanding will serve as the foundation of your collaboration 

Step 2: Model Transparency 

As you focus on collaborative solutions that work for everyone, model transparency around the clear goals and desires. Ask employees and managers to be transparent as well. This will avoid confusion and surprises down the road.

Step 3: Remain Flexible

While leaders and managers may still want employees back at work, keep in mind that employees remain in the driver’s seat. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, another 4.3 million Americans left their jobs in January 2022. 

When you find solutions that are genuinely collaborative and meet your company’s performance goals, you sidestep the conflict between control vs. autonomy, you save a boatload of time and money, and you build a culture that will continue to recruit and retain talent into the future.

I’d love to hear your questions and comments. If you would like to discuss this topic further, just drop me a note.

Until then, let’s keep cultivating our culture, together!

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