Autonomy Raises Productivity: An Experiment Measuring Neurophysiology

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Employees have been given increasing autonomy to work from home, from virtual offices, and during travel. Understanding why autonomy affects work behaviors has relied to date on self-reported data in which employees may consciously or unconsciously misattribute their own causal actions. We designed a neuroscience experiment to investigate the mechanisms through which greater autonomy affects individual and team performance and if this had an effect on mood. Participants (N = 100) were shown a three-min video that described the productivity impact of greater autonomy at work (treatment) or the productivity benefits of work-flow management software. Electrodermal responses were captured to measure physiologic effort and were related to the video stimuli, productivity, and mood. The treatment group had a 5.2% (p = 0.047) greater average productivity and 31% (p = 0.000) higher positive affect after the video than the control group average. Productivity was directly related to the physiologic effort put into the task for both the treatment and control groups, but the video prime did not increase effort compared to the control. The impact of physiologic effort on productivity continued to hold when controlling for participants’ intrinsic motivation. We also found that individual productivity was associated with an increase in positive affect, while group productivity increased positive affect only for those in the treatment group. Our findings indicate that increased perceived autonomy can significantly improve individual and group productivity and that this can have a salubrious impact on mood, but the neurologic mechanism through which this occurs remains to be identified.




Johannsen, R., & Zak, P. J. (2020). Autonomy Raises Productivity: An Experiment Measuring Neurophysiology. Frontiers in Psychology, 11.

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