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Trust & Autonomy at Work

Autonomy is being able to make choices that are an expression of your self.

The notion of "choice" is central to autonomy, but autonomy is more than a choice among a fixed number of predefined options. Where there is complete autonomy, people are free to make choices that they completely endorse as being representative of who they are. The more autonomy a person has, the more of their whole self they bring to their choices. In this way, an autonomous behavior is one that is fully endorsed by the person performing it. The opposite of autonomous behavior is controlled behavior --- behavior that is encouraged or forced by others or the environment3,10,11.

When people have more autonomy, we are more creative, more motivated, and less stressed.

Autonomy is the single most powerful job resource [Job Resources PSB]. When people feel high autonomy, we perform better, learn faster, are more intrinsically motivated, feel less tension, and experience greater job satisfaction.  Autonomy relates to feeling personal responsibility for our work, which can lead to positive outcomes3,4,5.

Autonomy needs a supportive environment to thrive.

Full autonomy results from a combination of an individual doing a task that s/he is intrinsically motivated to perform, in a work environment that encourages his/her freedom of choice, and working with others who also support his/her autonomy. In short, autonomy needs support to thrive3,8,10.

Work environments that support autonomy also create trust.

When managers and organizational culture support people's autonomy, employees are more likely to trust both the manager and the corporation. Interestingly, one study showed that people who felt their managers supported their autonomy were more likely to trust both the organization as a whole, and to trust top managers whom they'd never met2,3.

Trust is the expectation that you will find what is expected rather than what is feared.

Trusting somebody means having a clear picture of their intentions. Your image of someone's intentions and motives helps you make attributions about their behaviors (i.e., when you try to think of why somebody did something). When you feel that you have a clear enough picture of the other person's intentions that you can be vulnerable, then you have trust7,9.

People can establish trust by building familiarity and interpersonal knowledge, and setting shared goals.

We trust other people who we interact with frequently, who we know a lot about, and who are similar to us. Thus, organizations can foster trust between coworkers by encouraging frequent interaction, and supporting discovery of commonalities and shared interests.  Teams, departments, and professions can serve as common ground (e.g., a programmer may trust another programmer before trusting a sales person)1,7,9.

Organizations promote trust by influencing norms and goals.

Organizations can foster widespread trust by spreading norms of benevolence (treating each other well), and by setting shared missions and goals that people identify with strongly.  When we identify strongly with a shared mission, we are more likely to engage in "good citizen" behaviors (like staying a little late to back up a coworker, or making constructive suggestions), which further enhance trust6,7,9.


  1. Abrams, L. C., Cross, R., Lesser, E., & Levin, D. Z. (2003). Nurturing interpersonal trust in knowledge-sharing networks. Academy of Management Perspectives, 17(4), 64–77.
  2. Deci, E. L., Connell, J. P., & Ryan, R. M. (1989). Self-determination in a work organization. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74(4), 580–590.
  3. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1987). The support of autonomy and the control of behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(6), 1024–1037.
  4. Humphrey, S. E., Nahrgang, J. D., & Morgeson, F. P. (2007). Integrating motivational, social, and contextual work design features: A meta-analytic summary and theoretical extension of the work design literature. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(5), 1332–1356.
  5. Karasek, R. A. (1979). Job demands, job decision latitude, and mental strain: Implications for job redesign. Administrative Science Quarterly, 24(2), 285.
  6. Mayer, R. C., Davis, J. H., & Schoorman, F. D. (1995). An integrative model of organizational trust. The Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 709–734. JSTOR.
  7. McAllister, D. J. (1995). Affect- and cognition-based trust as foundations for interpersonal cooperation in organizations. Academy of Management Journal, 38(1), 24–59.
  8. Nix, G. A., Ryan, R. M., Manly, J. B., & Deci, E. L. (1999). Revitalization through self-regulation: The effects of autonomous and controlled motivation on happiness and vitality. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35(3), 266–284.
  9. Rousseau, D. M., Sitkin, S. B., Burt, R. S., & Camerer, C. (1998). Not so different after all: a cross-discipline view of trust. Academy of Management Review, 23(3), 393–404.
  10. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2002). Overview of self-determination theory: An organismic-dialectical perspective.
  11. Su, Y.-L., & Reeve, J. (2011). A meta-analysis of the effectiveness of intervention programs designed to support autonomy. Educational Psychology Review, 23(1), 159–188.
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