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Why Workplace Autonomy Is the Way of the Future

Results-only work environments, or ROWEs, are on the rise. Turns out money isn't all there is to motivate people.

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Autonomy, as they see it, is diffeent from independence. It’s not the rugged, go-it-alone, rely-on-nobody individualism of the American cowboy. It means acting with choice -- which means we can be both autonomous and happily -interdependent with others. And while the idea of independence has national and political reverberations, autonomy appears to be a human concept rather than a Western one. Researchers have found a link between autonomy and overall well-being not only in North America and Western Europe, but in Russia, Turkey and South Korea. Even in high-poverty non-Western locales like Bangladesh, social scientists have found that autonomy is something that people seek and that improves their lives.

A sense of autonomy has a powerful effect on individual performance and attitude. According to a cluster of recent behavioral science studies, autonomous motivation promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, enhanced persistence at school and, in sporting activities, higher productivity, less burnout and greater psychological well-being. Those effects carry over to the workplace. In 2004, Deci and Ryan, along with Paul Baard of Fordham University, carried out a study of workers at an American investment bank. The three researchers found greater job satisfaction among employees whose bosses offered “autonomous support.” These bosses saw issues from the employee’s point of view, gave meaningful feedback and information, provided ample choice over what to do and how to do it and encouraged employees to take on new projects. The resulting enhancement in job satisfaction, in turn, led to higher performance on the job. What’s more, the benefits that autonomy confers on individuals extend to their organizations. For examples, researchers at Cornell University studied 320 small businesses, half of which granted workers autonomy; the other half relied on top-down direction. The businesses that offered autonomy grew at four times the rate of the control-oriented firms and had one-third the employee turnover.

Yet too many businesses remain woefully behind the science. Most 21st-century notions of management presume that, in the end, people are pawns rather than players. British economist Francis Green, to cite just one example, points to the lack of individual discretion at work as the main explanation for declining productivity and job satisfaction in the U.K. Management still revolves largely around supervision, “if-then” rewards and other forms of control. That’s even true of the kinder, gentler Motivations 2.1 approach that whispers sweetly about things like “empowerment” and “flexibility.”

Indeed, just consider the very notion of “empowerment.” It presumes that the organization has the power and benevolently ladles some of it into the waiting bowls of grateful employees. But that’s not autonomy. That’s just a slightly more civilized form of control. Or take management’s embrace of “flex time.” Ressler and Thompson call it a “con game,” and they’re right. Flexibility simply widens the fences and occasionally opens the gates. It, too, is little more than control in sheep’s clothing. The words themselves reflect presumptions that run against both the texture of the times and the nature of the human condition. In short, management isn’t the solution; it’s the problem.

Perhaps it’s time to toss the very word “management” onto the linguistic ash heap alongside “icebox” and “horseless carriage.” This era doesn’t call for better management. It calls for a renaissance of self-direction.