Maximizing the Benefits of Autonomy in Teams

Topic(s): job performance, teams
Publication: Journal of Organizational Behavior
Article: The impact of autonomy and task uncertainty on team performance: A longitudinal field study 
Authors: J.L. Cordery, D. Morrison, B.M. Wright, T.D. Wall
Reviewed by: Sarah Teague

Modern jobs are becoming more interconnected every year. Where once we worked alone in our cubicles, we are now more likely to be part of a team collectively working toward some common goal. Additionally, the nature of work is increasingly reliant on employees’ ability to adapt to new and challenging situations. As such, much effort has gone (and continues to go) into the study of team effectiveness. Giving teams autonomy (freedom over the process through which they achieve their goal) is argued to be key in maximizing performance. However, results in the current literature have been mixed. Mixed results typically indicate the presence of some third important factor that helps to explain why the relationship is different across time, people, or situations.


The current study sought to clarify the conditions under which team autonomy will lead to greater increases in performance. The authors proposed three hypotheses. First, increased autonomy will be related to increased performance. Second, higher levels of task uncertainty (when people cannot predict which problems will arise when performing the work) will be related to decreased performance. Third, these two variables will interact such that autonomy is more beneficial to performance as the level of task uncertainty increases.

The first and second hypotheses were supported with increases in team autonomy resulting in better overall performance and increases in task uncertainty generally decreasing performance, respectively. The final hypothesis was largely supported in that teams reporting greater task uncertainty reaped larger benefits (with regard to overall performance) from increased team autonomy.


While organizations certainly would not (and probably should not) attempt to increase task uncertainty, the current findings suggest a potentially useful bit of advice. Specifically, situations that are high in task uncertainty may be the perfect opportunity to increase team autonomy in order to maximize its impact on team performance.  


Cordery, J. L., Morrison, D., Wright, B. M., & Wall, T. D. (2010). The impact of autonomy and task uncertainty on team performance: A longitudinal field study. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 31(2-3), 240–258