The Difference Between Autonomy and Independence

Individuals and teams crave the ability to execute their work without interference or complication. So instead of isolating, what should a division do when they feel their competence, relatedness, and/or their autonomy threatened?

Years ago, we were onsite at a Fortune 500 interviewing the head of HR when we had an exchange I’ll never forget. 

Us: What are your hopes for the HR department and what’s in the way?

Her: I have a lot of hopes, but we’ll never get there with people coming to us all day with their problems.

If I had been drinking water, I would have given back an epic spit-take. This was the head of HR lamenting that people came to her department with their people problems. At the time, I was struck that this attitude felt selfish and self-indulgent. Why else did HR exist, if not to serve others? She wasn’t my client, she was my client’s partner in the business, but if she had been my client I wasn’t sure how I would have helped her think differently about her work or in turn, helped her teams collaborate better across the organization.  

But in the last few years we’ve worked with many, many shared service groups like HR (and legal, finance, IT, etc.) and I’ve come to understand her frustrations a bit better. I still don’t agree with her sentiment, but I have a deeper understanding of where it comes from and maybe, just maybe how to help.

There’s an enduring idea in psychology called the theory of self-determination. It posits that we human beings have three innate needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. We want to achieve mastery in what we do. We want to belong. And we want to have control over our own lives and be our true selves.

When that head of HR complained to us, she was feeling both her competence and autonomy threatened. 

She must have felt as though she and her teams had become ticket-takers rather than strategic partners, so they weren’t able to exercise their full abilities. They couldn’t achieve mastery.

Because those requests were piling up, she must have felt that her teams would never get to the work they had designed for themselves. How can you be autonomous if you simply have no time to exercise your free will?

Lastly, her sentiment must have also been the product of a lack of relatedness. You really start to feel your autonomy threatened when your values and the values of the actions you’re asked to take differ greatly. And a lack of shared values also contributes to a lack of relatedness. How can you feel a sense of belonging when your values don’t match up?

So, her extreme views were the product of extreme pressures. If human beings really do have these three needs, she wasn’t getting any of those needs met at work. 

When leaders and departments suffer in this way, we tend to see them retreat into themselves. They fortify the walls of their silos and shutter their windows of access. They begin limiting their interactions with other groups, sometimes even adopting a reflexive “No” to every incoming request for support. Leaders may start demanding that all asks be escalated to the top of the silo even before they can be genuinely heard. Because of this, these groups do regain some sense of autonomy but it’s a toxic kind of autonomy. Eventually, these fortresses of “No’s” topple. Either because the organization refuses to be ignored or worse, the entire business stumbles because so many of its groups are behaving in this way. 

Autonomy isn’t the same as independence. The two are quite different. In the theory of self-determination, autonomy means that you have free will and that you can stand behind your actions and their values. In other words, no one is forcing you to do something you disagree with. Independence means you don’t need or accept help, resources, or care from others. You function without others. Spot the difference? Autonomy doesn’t even require independence. You can absolutely be autonomous AND dependent on others for help and support. You can act in accordance to your beliefs, with free will, and still exchange support and care.

The world is more connected and therefore more interdependent. Our products, largely because of technology, require increasing coordination and faster, more effective collaboration. Pure independence is simply impossible in the 21st century. Fortresses of “no’s” are unsustainable. 

So instead of isolating, what should a division do when they feel their competence, relatedness, and/or their autonomy threatened?

  1. First, identify your customers. We ask a series of questions to get clients there: 1) What does your individual group create? In other words, what are your routine outputs? Who then needs or consumes those outputs? Those are your customers. So, for example, if you work in Finance and one of the things you routinely produce are budgets for division heads, then those division heads are one of your customer groups. For many of our clients, we help develop internal customer personas that they reflect on and revise every six months or so. These personas help our clients better understand their customers’ unmet and emerging needs.
  2. Next, classify those customers by their needs. Identify which customers or which circumstances want/need ticket-taking and which require and allow for greater strategic partnership. We recently worked with a marketing shared service and when we did this exercise, we ended up freeing up a ton of resources and alleviated enormous frustrations when we aligned everyone on the team that customer X just wanted a fast-food drive-thru (they order off a menu and get served quickly) and customer Y wanted a strategic thought partner. Knowing this allowed the team to use their resources more effectively and they stopped trying so hard to change customer X. 
  3. Then, simplify and automate all the routine tasks you can. Most people don’t love routine tasks, but it’s those tasks that keep businesses functioning day-to-day. If these tasks are consuming too much of your time to achieve mastery or autonomy, then you have to automate them. HR as a discipline has made huge strides in the last decade with more and more access to automated systems. We’d love to see more legal departments that had self-generated contracts, more IT departments with self-serve data dashboards, and more finance departments that had self-serve budget models. But the thing to remember is that the first goal of automation isn’t to reduce headcount, it’s to increase time and space for strategic partnership. A better division isn’t a leaner division, it’s a proactive and responsive one.
  4. Lastly, obsess over your shared values. If your division doesn’t share values with the rest of their organization, then all tasks will challenge your relatedness and autonomy. To function, values have to be more than platitudes. They must encode the choices and tradeoffs you are willing to make when things are difficult and resources are scarce. When we write values with clients, we actually phrase them as “_______ even at the cost of _______.” At NOBL, we have values like “One shared culture even at the cost of local cohesion and individuality.” And “Continuous improvement even at the cost of comfort and confidence.” As a team, weigh your incoming requests and your own actions against these values. If they don’t match, your sense of autonomy will suffer. When we don’t talk about our values with our partners, they can feel so far apart that the distance is unmanageable. But we’ve found with our clients, that just by talking about values teams immediately begin to coalesce around a shared set of choices. Having the conversation is the hardest part.
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