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Want to retain high-value employees? Empower autonomy

Recession. Expansion. It doesn’t matter what the economy is like. High quality employees are always in high demand. And as firms increasingly execute in teams, positive performers become even more critical to maintaining an effective workplace dynamic.

So what’s the key to retaining employees in the modern organization? An environment supporting autonomy, according to new research co-authored by Thomas Lee, professor of management and associate dean for academic and faculty affairs at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, and former Foster doctoral student Dong Liu (now an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Georgia Tech).

“We find that when the team environment supports autonomy, individuals tend to feel more engaged with the team and empowered in their work,” explains Lee. “This leads to greater probability of retention.”

Linking team with individual autonomy

The study is one of the first to look at the affect of autonomy on turnover in work teams.

Lee and Liu, working with Shu Zhang of Columbia University and Lei Wang of Xian Jiao Tong University, examined 817 employees in 115 teams at a large auto parts manufacturer.

Using a series of surveys over time, the team tracked the relationship between an individual’s orientation toward autonomy and his or her work team’s level of support for autonomy. The result is a degree of psychological empowerment that predicts whether or not an individual will seek a new job.

“Our model gets to the sweet spot of supervisor and team support of individuals’ preference for autonomy,” Lee says. “This leads to a greater sense of empowerment and, ultimately, reduces the chances that an individual will voluntarily leave an organization.”

Turnover in the spotlight

Organizations are taking a heightened interest in the dynamics of voluntary turnover due to the changing nature of work, workers and the workplace.

The majority of job growth is in the areas of science, technology and engineering, as well as law, medicine and business—areas requiring a great deal of knowledge. But Lee explains that virtually every job today is a knowledge job. “The stereotypical ‘working stiff’ is an endangered species,” he says. “There are fewer and fewer jobs that don’t require some sort of cognitive functioning. Nurses. Construction workers. Auto mechanics. Cashiers. All have seen their jobs increasingly complicated.”

And the knowledge economy is increasingly in the hands of a new generation of workers. Baby Boomers are retiring, replaced by the Millennials—young, educated, tech-savvy, mobile, autonomous but socially networked. “The Millennials are bringing a new definition of the work ethic,” Lee says.

And the workplace they’re entering is different, too. Firms are organized into interconnected task teams, putting a premium on relationship capital and healthy group dynamics. At the same time, the notion of employment-for-life loyalty is all but extinct.

Dynamic groups

All of these shifts add up to an increased emphasis on employee retention. And we’re not talking only the traditional “superstar.” Productive employees come in many different guises. “Everyone is looking for talent,” Lee says. “That could mean the super performer, the natural leader, the superior intellect, the dynamic problem-solver, the experienced sage, or the social glue that holds the team together.”

Remove any one and the team could become derailed.

The best way to prevent that from happening is supporting autonomy, which leads to the kind of empowerment that keeps workers from straying.

“We’ve known for 100 years that intrinsic motivation—doing things because you want to—is most effective,” Lee adds. “Now we know that people are willing to put up with less-than-perfect work conditions and pay if the job is fun, challenging, impactful.

“Having a supportive environment for autonomy and creativity may always have been important. But it’s even more important now.”

The Effects of Autonomy and Empowerment on Employee Turnover: Test of a Multilevel Model in Teams” is the work of Dong Liu, former doctoral student at the Foster School of Business, Shu Zhang, Columbia University Business School, Lei Wang, Xian Jiao Tong University School of Management, and Thomas W. Lee, UW Foster School of Business. It is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.