Assuming this isn't your first read on employee motivation or rewarding, you might have a certain preassumption of how this article will go down. You expect to get some examples on the ineffectiveness of throwing money at people, then comes the pleading for a revolution in the world of work, only to conclude with a couple of actions to turn just about anyone into a self-regulating powerhouse. If only it were that straightforward in real life, right?

This article, however, is not an advertisement for more autonomy just because it's very trendy, nor a guideline on how it should be implemented. It is a comparison between two major incentives that could make or break the deal for both potential future employees as well as current ones. Money vs autonomy.

All in favor for hard earned cash

Let's take a look at the advantages of a reasonable earning:

  1. Living is expensive

    You make more guilt-free decisions and worry less if you don't have to take out your calculator before each purchase.
  2. Less envy when others succeed

    Seeing other people making progress while you are struggling to come by can be very frustrating.
  3. Money is mental/physical assurance and stability

    Having a bit of a reserve to deal with misfortune sounds logical to most but is a challenge for many.
  4. More resources for opportunities and possibilities

    Undertaking something in unknown territory isn't alway cheap, especially in the beginning. Even though the outcome may be very profitable.

Well well. Those advantages don't seem too shabby if you ask me. So why would a hard-working employee NOT be motivated by this?

The truth is of course, that a lot of employees ARE motivated by this. And rightly so. Fair compensation is still the gateway by choice for many to establish a comfortable and somewhat carefree life. In a world where the general buying power has decreased and where stress and burnouts reign supreme, reasonable wealth is most certainly welcome.

Even with a sufficient income, it is perfectly possible to be satisfied with work without much autonomy. Not every job or type of person requires the freedom and room for self-exploration.

Humans don't want freedom, just a fair master.

Purely mechanical jobs or roles with a lot of variation can be very appealing without an abundance of choice. The same goes for people who are somewhat frightened by the responsibility that comes with freedom. A comfortable environment, good colleagues, and a reasonable commute might be way more valuable to them.

When unhappiness can't be bribed off

Good employers know that decent work deserves an honest compensation. They want to keep their valuable workforce satisfied after all. But what if you start to feel that people are dropping off, despite their competitive salaries?

Now before we bring the autonomy factor into this, note that this could be the cause of any number of reasons. Because for most, before you can claim that paycheck at the end of each month, there are approximately 160 hours that need to be filled in first. During that time only a couple of things need to go wrong in order to experience some dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction that can eventually lead to an increase in turnover.

Take the issue of money off the table first.

It goes without saying that different causes need different fixes. Some will be obvious, some very subtle. If they appear unclear, calling in the help of a digital barometer can allow you to find out where and how you can improve certain areas. Whether it's about the physical demands, the recognition for their work, or the relationship with their coworkers... They can all influence the incentive to stay at a job.

So yes, money is important. Pay not enough and people won't even start to wonder how they can improve things for themselves. They'll want more cash or they'll find it elsewhere. That's just reality.
Though if people feel they do get paid enough, but still have the tendency to be unsatisfied or to leave, then throwing more money at that problem will very rarely fix it. That's when it's time to look to the next level. What about their other needs? And in this case, what about their freedom?

Autonomy as a game changer

As said before, allowing more autonomy certainly isn't the only area to invest in if you want to increase the working experience. But it is one of the biggest game changers because it can be used as a very effective incentive to attract and retain your highly valued employees.

The advantages of more autonomy
  1. Employees have more control over their own destiny

    more commitment and engagement ("perception" of choice)
  2. Energy management (vs time management)

    Sometimes you're not feeling it, and other times you're practically a freight train. Exploit the latter by optimizing your own working routine.
  3. Experiencing a lot less stress

    There's a strong decrease in stressors we can't control, which are more harmful in comparison to those we can manage.
  4. More room for opportunities and possibilities

    What's the use of coming up with bright ideas when you're missing the time and freedom to explore them?
  5. A more purpose-driven approach to work

    The sense of responsibility makes a person think more about the WHY of the job, which engages him/her even more. More on this gem later!

Try to propose one or more of these as possibilities to your employees in a "how would you feel if you..." kind of manner. If you're noticing a sudden peak in attention and dialogue, chances are high they would really thrive with a little more autonomy. They might feel they'd be more productive in the comfort of their own home sometimes or come up with new processes to update existing ones, maybe start a project on the side to create new opportunities... Some employers are even experimenting with close to total freedom. Whatever change your employees feel would be a benefit to their work(-life balance) or the company, it's up to you as a manager to create the opportunity for them to alter their current working experience for the better.

You will need structure though

Autonomy has a lot to do with freedom, but there most definitely is a need for structure and a certain degree of follow-up to ensure that everything is still moving forward. Employees still have to reach their individual objectives and results. The same goes for team and company goals.
Schedule frequent check-ins with your team members. They are a perfect way to make sure that the operational changes still benefit everyone involved.

When autonomy really shines

Both money and autonomy are very much aimed at being beneficial for the employee. But where autonomy as an incentive truly takes the cake, is on the advantages for the employer. Because, unlike during the olden days, the loyalty that he or she expects in return can no longer be bought. That privilege is almost completely in autonomy's camp now, as it is the kindling that ignites the true fire that keeps your organization lit, namely purpose.

The power of having a purpose

For a long time, employers have had the habit of imposing not only the WHAT but also the HOW of the job on their employees. But people starting to ask themselves more and more, "Why?" A question that hasn't gone unnoticed by countless of organizations the last couple of years.

More than ever before, people are looking for meaning in what they do.

And while this "revolution" might have started with the increasing amount of millennials on the workforce, it is not a trend specifically tailored to their generation. Sure, Millennials may have experienced it faster and accepted it sooner as the new "normal", but it is something that definitely speaks to all kinds of age groups.

Autonomy's role in this is two-fold. Allow more freedom in HOW people are going about their job, and they'll start to wonder about the WHY. Once they have a grasp of why their contribution is important, it is up to the employer to really fuel that feeling by acknowledging their impact. This will ultimately spur the employee engagement that so many companies are looking for, making autonomy a real game-changer.

Employers, behold your main takeaways!

By now it should be pretty clear that a combination of the two will most likely be the recipe for success. In what amount either have to be added to the mixture depends entirely on the nature of the organization, the kind of person you're dealing with and the role they have within the company.

Money + Autonomy = Perfect Job?


  1. Don't underpay your hard-working employees. Putting together a great team is hard enough as is. Take the issue of money off the table first if you can. 
  2. The window in which money is effective as a motivator or incentive keeps getting narrower. Spending more on wages while retention keeps dropping is something you want to avoid at all costs. (pun intended)
  3. Unlike a few decades ago, people now have the option to think about the purpose, the WHY, of their job and it influences the way they define the best way to do the WHAT and the HOW. Be open for feedback on that part and explore ways to allow more autonomy for your current workforce. If done well, the engagement in return will not only increase retention but also productivity.
  4. Attract new talent by making clear that they'll not only have competitive wages but also a real choice in how they can fill in their role and reach their goals.
  5. Autonomy is only one of many aspects that can drive performance and job satisfaction, but it is a very significant one. It's important to keep communicating back and forward and evaluate the change in performance level so other opportunities to improve the working experience can be explored.
  6. If your actions are applied to the right people in the right way, you can expect an increase in job satisfaction, higher employee engagement, and a lower turnover rate.