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The importance of autonomy in leadership

We’ve got autonomy down to a ‘T.’ Well, five actually

In 2009, Daniel Pink published Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. He talked about a new way to motivate teams: not with monetary incentives and competition with colleagues, but by giving them autonomy in their work.

Some of the more sceptical amongst you might be thinking it sounds like some sort of shrewd save-face-and-money scheme. But it’s not about poo-pooing financial incentives. Everyone deserves to be recognised for their contribution to a business in a way that aligns with their role, responsibilities and industry standards. 

But research shows that this isn’t motivating enough. Motivations like actually enjoying your job and feeling fulfilled and valued are much more effective. And autonomy is one way to achieve this.

In short, this means giving people ownership over the work they do and trusting them to control how they do it. It’s worked for many organisations, but nearly 10 years after Pink’s book came out, many are still scared to break their micromanagement habits. So I thought I’d share how we do things here at THRIVE, and why it works.


Some time constraints are necessary for a workplace to run – the length of a shift, the hours in a work week, client deadlines to meet. But there’s still room for autonomy at work, and it can make a big difference.

We use project management tools to organise our work, but we don’t plan out people’s time. There’s no daily work planner and we don’t log what people have done. Instead, we give them ownership of a set of tasks. Tasks that are prioritised into two week sprints. 

We don’t mind if a graphic designer takes a bit longer than normal to illustrate a particular piece of content, because that freedom often translates into a better quality final product. Not to mention a happier artist. And an interesting consequence of this is that the overall time spent on creating our products aligns with our targets anyway.

Not only do we give the team autonomy over how they spend their time, but to some extent what they spend it on too. We give the team a say in our roadmap and try to align their workload with their personal motivators. During regular creativity days, workshops are interspersed with free time. This is an opportunity for people to work on exactly what they choose. And guess what? Some of our most innovative and engaging products have been developed in these sessions.

Task & Technique

“Hire good people, and leave them alone.” A quote from William McKnight, former chairman of the 3M corporation, and a mantra for us here at THRIVE. As leaders, we trust our team to do their job well. We’re on hand to answer questions, and we’ll check in occasionally. But we don’t feel the need to keep checking up on people.

We want everyone to get into their own groove and work in a way that makes sense to them. The results? A team of individuals who all have faith in their abilities. By refusing to micromanage, we give everyone the space to develop their skills and find out what they do best. 

Another benefit of this is that we get some great insights into what’s working and what’s not. Yes, we have a strong process, but it’s informed by everyone and we’re constantly reflecting on what we could do better. Together. 


Our open office space, our friendly atmosphere, our focus on collaboration at all stages of production… 

All of these combine to give people autonomy over who they work with. Of course, everyone gets on well, but research has shown that people working in self-made teams are more satisfied than people who have teams organised for them.

This ad-hoc way of collaborating is also great for our creativity, because we’re always working with a unique set of ideas and experience. And this is where our ethos of autonomy at work goes beyond Daniel Pink’s ‘four Ts’. To close things out, I’ll add a fifth: we like to give people autonomy over their talent.


We’re very proud of our reputation as a creative, disruptive company. And we didn’t gain that for no reason. We recruit for imagination, flair, and openness to trying new things.

This openness is important. It allows people to experiment and figure out what they’re good at. We encourage our team to take their time researching and exploring concepts, to test new skills and techniques and to put forward wacky ideas. We give them ownership over their creativity and create a safe environment for taking risks and learning from mistakes. But we also encourage them to become masters at what they do and develop their experience and skills in the things they choose to.

So what motivates you?

Understanding what energises and inspires you is key to enjoying your job and getting better at it. 

And if you manage a team, getting to know what they’re passionate about is the first step to motivating them.

Want to find out more about autonomy in leadership and factors that make an effective leader? The leadership bundle in our elearning catalogue is made up of 8 microlearning modules that will develop you and your organisation’s leaders, enhance their skills and drive better performance.




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