The legendary rock singer Janis Joplin once sang, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” Employers may, in fact, not have much to lose when it comes to giving their employees some added freedom.

Workers who feel they are free to make choices in the workplace, and be held accountable for them, are happier and more productive than employees who are more restricted, according to an extensive research literature review.

The problem, however, is that there's no universal cross-cultural definition of autonomy.

"The perception of autonomy has very positive effects on workers," said Marylène Gagné, a professor at Concordia University's John Molson School of Business in Montreal, Canada.

Autonomy can take many different forms. Organizations may let employees set their own schedules, choose how to do their work or even elect to work from home. No matter how autonomy is defined, when people feel they have more latitude the results are impressive. Potential benefits include greater employee commitment , better performance, improved productivity and lower turnover.

"Autonomy is especially likely to lead to better productivity when the work is complex or requires more creativity," Gagné said. "In a very routine job, autonomy doesn't have much impact on productivity, but it can still increase satisfaction, which leads to other positive outcomes. When management makes decisions about how to organize work, they should always think about the effect on people's autonomy."

With the workplace constantly evolving and globalization increasingly important, cross-cultural research into workplace autonomy is more important than ever, the researchers said. Until recently, most management research was conducted in North America. As a result, managers in other countries have little to guide them as they develop techniques that work in their own cultural context.

To help address this lack, Gagné is now studying leadership behavior in several countries, including China and Italy.

"We're trying to see how leadership behaviors affect employee motivation, and if the same behaviors in different countries have the same effect," Gagné says. "Sometimes, they do not. For example, in some cultures, bosses can't ask the opinion of subordinates, because it makes them appear weak. So managers in these environments have to find other ways to make people feel autonomous. There is no simple recipe."

The research is being published in the book “Human Autonomy in Cross-Cultural Context: Perspectives on the Psychology of Agency, Freedom, and Well-Being” (Springer), which was co-authored by  Gagné and fellow Concordia professor Devasheesh Bhave.