Behavioural scientists have long believed that peak human potential can be achieved by means of reward and punishment, commonly referred to as an autocratic approach to leadership. It’s based on a theory that draws comparisons between a person and a captive animal performing at Sea World, and unfortunately it’s one that is often readily applied in business. If you exceed your KPIs you’ll get a bonus. But if you fail, you better start worrying about keeping your job.

What if we got this all wrong and short-term rewards and punishments are an ineffective form of motivation? What if money alone isn’t enough to inspire employees in the 21st Century?

Key to motivation

There is mounting research (and anecdotal evidence) that suggests the key to motivation is in fact the opposite of the ‘reward versus punishment’ approach. In actuality, the answer lies in understanding the fundamental human desire to have control over our lives.

What science already tells us is that a person does their best work when they have a degree of power over it. Job fulfilment comes with the freedom to make decisions and the liberty to own your work. Empowered employees breed higher levels of work, whether this is customer service or disrupting an industry, because they treat their job as though it’s their own company. These are the people you want to build the business with.

When employees exercise autonomy at work they become happier and more productive. Since we know turnover rate typically goes hand in hand with engagement levels, the big return on investment from fostering an autonomous culture cannot be ignored.

Companies leading the way

Innovative companies know this. Take Google, for example, where employees are given ‘20% time’—the equivalent to one full workday each week to explore, invent and work on projects that are of personal interest to them, in any environment they choose. Some of the company’s most successful products—including Gmail and Google News—were created during this time.

Companies like this understand that the future is built on a foundation of new ideas and fulfilment of a greater purpose, and they equip their employees with the workplace autonomy to pursue it.

If the idea of shifting to an autonomous environment is unsettling, the good news is that there is a happy medium between total autonomy and autocracy. It’s right here in this sweet spot that many successful businesses are thriving every day.

Benefits of flexi-time

Flexible work hours should only be granted once an employee has proved their value in a capacity that doesn’t require constant monitoring. The key to ‘letting go’ is to begin empowering employees to make small decisions, and work their way up as they prove themselves. Importantly, trust your judgement about who to place in these roles and watch them lead.

Accountability and ownership

Understanding the difference between accountability and ownership is also a crucial ingredient in creating autonomy. Accountability is something given or assigned to an employee; you can instruct someone to perform a task or reach a KPI, but in effect it is you that owns that task or KPI.

Ownership, on the other hand, is not given or assigned to an employee. It is taken by them. Ownership happens when someone comes forward and says ‘This is what I’m going to make happen. Here’s how I’m going to do it, and this is what I will achieve.’ Fostering an environment of ownership, not just accountability, is the key to building an autonomous culture.

Companies benefit from creating a culture of autonomy where everyone understands their purpose. Each and every player must understand the greater goals of the business, and in turn be working towards targeted, concrete objectives every day in order to contribute to these greater goals.

As soon as each of the players knows exactly what victory looks like, they can use their own strategies and creativity to score goals on the field.

It’s time to let go of the reward and punishment theory; employees who fear the crunch of failure won’t produce better work and ultimately are of limited use to your company. Focus instead on creating a culture of feedback and choice, where work is its own reward.

It is in this culture that your employees achieve the goals that will transform your company and create a true leader.