Autonomy, connectedness and competence: the 3 pillars of a rewarding career

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Being stuck in a job that you don’t fully enjoy is a bit like swimming upstream. Technically you can do it, but it’s a lot of work – you’re itching to go with the flow. In contrast, a rewarding career is more akin to floating. It still takes some effort, but equally, you are buoyed along by the force of your own energy, allowing you to relax into your role. You and the water ( aka, your career) come together in harmony, at the perfect point of balance. The question is, how to get there.

Social science tells us that there are three things we need for optimal wellbeing: autonomy, relatedness and competence. If we can 1.) own our own behaviour, 2.) connect with others and 3.) experience mastery, the theory goes, we will be in the best possible place to experience growth and motivation in life. 

At a time when many of us are reconsidering the “why” of our careers, this concept applies to our work lives as much as anything else. If we can have freedom in our careers, along with a vital sense of connection, and the correct skills to be able to perform, it stands to reason that we’ll be happier for it. 

Here’s why these three values are the hallmark of a rewarding career, and how, in a job-seeker’s market,  you can use them as a litmus test for that age-old question, “Should I stay or should I go?”

Autonomy: having the freedom to work how you want

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Let’s face it, there’s nothing worse than being micromanaged. With “flexibility” now the buzzword of offices around the world, we want the freedom to choose not only when and where, but also *how*, we work. 

No matter what your industry, the best kind of career will empower you to find your own solutions; rather than having your boss breathing down your neck on every new project. Instead of imposing a structure on you, it’ll give you some degree of control in setting deadlines and priorities. 

This approach stands to reason, really. But it’s amazing how many jobs out there get overly prescribed and mishandled by senior management; limiting your natural abilities to do as you think best. 

If you lack freedom in your job, it’s a major red flag

Ideally, job autonomy also means choosing when you work, to a certain degree. So, you can choose when to take your lunch break or leave at night, without the pressure of being seen to be present. In a post-Covid age, it may also equal choosing to work at home or in the office as you please, without having to justify your choices, or tell your boss every time you need two hours out. 

Not all jobs will allow this amount of freedom; but equally, if your career lacks any element of choice, it’s a major red flag. Researchers on the topic agree that workplace satisfaction goes hand-in-hand with autonomy, making it a must for overall fulfilment.

Connectedness: feeling valued by the people around you

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Since most of us spend up to nine hours a day at work, it’s important that we feel a sense of connection with those around us. While employees without strong ties in the workplace can quickly become isolated and burnt out, the opposite is also true. Having a close friend at work creates motivation and engagement where it otherwise might fade. 

In other words, there’s a lot to be said for having someone who’s on your side in the office. These are the people who will laugh with you, champion you and be your wingman as you decompress over a pint together at the end of a long day. The kind of buddy who fully gets what you’re going through with a work crisis (unlike your other non-work friends or partner, who must patiently ride out your rants). 

This is especially true because of the recent pandemic we’ve been through. A good job is no longer just about a big salary, or an impressive job title; it means good people who’ll support you, come what may. People who see you for who you are, and who acknowledge your unique skills / hard work.

So, friendship in the workplace is more important than we might assume; but it doesn’t necessarily have to mean having a “best friend”. A generally friendly environment, full of like-minded people, or a compassionate boss, is just as helpful when it comes to feeling at home. 

Competence: having the right skills in place to perform

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Competence sounds like an obvious quality for a job that you enjoy; but it’s easily overlooked. How often have you felt completely out of your depth in a role, with no idea how to improve or move forwards?

There’s no quicker route to frustration and low self-esteem than this lingering sensation of being confused, or lost, in what your job is. The real problem comes when that feeling is allowed to fester (i.e. you don’t receive support). Before you know it, you’ll disconnect completely from what it is that drives you. 

There’s a fine line to walk here, too, because boredom and complacency at work lead to unhappiness, too. Ideally what you want is a career that stretches and challenges you without feeling overloaded or incapable.

You want a career that stretches and challenges you without feeling overloaded

 Learning is the answer. A massive 70% of employees are more likely to stay in a role if it comes with job-related training and development. It’s no good just committing to one random course at your annual review, either. Research shows that career-based learning processes need to be ongoing to be effective, combining elements such as micro courses, workshops and definitive systems of peer-mentored support. 

All this will help you build the skills you need to flourish in your career – for a job that’s truly heartfelt.

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