Could the Need for Autonomy Be Driving the Great Resignation?


What is being called the Great Resignation is characterized by employees walking away from their jobs in hopes of doing better elsewhere. At least that’s the way it’s characterized by Dallas-based Benefit Mall in a blog post published in early 2022. BenefitMall certainly has a point. Employees are not resigning in hopes of turning to begging. They are moving on to something they believe is better. But why?

Money is part of it. If a recent survey among 2,000 full and part-time employees is accurate, a lack of useful feedback opportunities is another factor. Burnout and stress are also cited by other studies. But could these all just be symptoms of a deeply rooted psychological need that no one is talking about? Could the need for autonomy really be driving the Great Resignation?

What Makes People Fight

To understand autonomy and its relationship to the workforce, we have to go back to a couple of 2018 Belgian studies that sought to understand why people involved in close relationships fight. The studies concluded that human beings have innate emotional needs that, when unmet, create negative emotions that ultimately lead to fights. The studies mentioned five specific needs. The need for autonomy was among them.

Researchers explained that human beings are born with the need to feel autonomous. We need to know that we have control over our own destinies. In a personal relationship, a person feeling like they are being controlled by the other loses that sense of autonomy. This creates negative feelings that lead to fighting.

If the conclusions of the Belgian research are correct, they have implications that go way beyond personal relationships. And because employment is a relationship between employer and employee, common sense dictates it would be negatively impacted by autonomy issues.

A Lack of Constructive Feedback

Getting back to the previously mentioned survey of 2,000 U.S. workers, 50% of the respondents said their employers do not ask for feedback. However, 78% said they are eager to offer it. It should be no surprise that 45% also said that the inability to offer meaningful feedback left them dissatisfied with their jobs.

Employees who have no input may feel like nothing more than cogs in a wheel. They have no say in how the company does business. They get no opportunity to offer feedback on how they are expected to do their jobs. Management never asks them what things can be improved, how they should be improved, and so on. This ultimately leads to employees feeling like they have no autonomy. They feel like they are being controlled by their employers day in and day out.

We Can Measure It

Whether or not the need for autonomy is driving the Great Resignation should be easily measurable just by looking at what people are doing. If the vast majority of employees who resign simply go to other companies, the autonomy thing could probably be ruled out. But if a significant number are trading in traditional employment for self-employment, contract work, or the pursuit of other interests, one could make the case that autonomy is an issue.

One way or the other, the Great Resignation is not just a money issue. Millions of employees have decided they are no longer satisfied with the employer-employee relationship they have always known. They are convinced there is a better way to do things.

If it takes resigning to find that way, millions are willing to take the risk. That says something to America’s employers. It says that change has arrived, whether they are on board with it or not.

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