The quest for autonomy

Autonomy comes from the Greek word autonomos, meaning (auto) ‘self’ (nomos) ‘law’. It refers to ‘the capacity of a rational individual to make an informed, un-coerced decision’ [Wikipedia].

For some time we’ve known that autonomy is what really makes people happy at work (not money! evidenced here and here). Luckily, enabling people to doing things in a self-guided way is exactly what makes companies most innovative and profitable. Just look at Google engineers, encouraged to take 20% of their time to work on whatever they like; hence Gmail, Google News and even the Google shuttle buses that bring people to work at the company’s headquarters in California.

We all crave the opportunity to work independently on something we’re passionate about.

The trouble is, most of us are confined by hierarchy. Hierarchy comes from the Greek work hierarchia, from hierarches, meaning ‘leader of sacred rites’. This view of leaders as sacred is crippling businesses in the 21st century, creating cultures of subservience and dependency.

Self-governance relies more on cooperation than dependency. Dependency doesn’t rely on cooperation. Most parents will agree :)

The difference between equality and subservience comes down to trust. The word ‘trust’ is hugely overused; and many of us operate in an untrusting way with absolutely no awareness of it whatsoever, often perceiving ourselves to be very modern, humane and down-with-the-kids in our management style.

Our inherent lack of trust stems from our perception / interpretation of authority. In school, at home, under law, in the workplace, under government – everywhere we go we’re faced with authority figures who tell us exactly what to do and punish us if we’re out of line.

The trouble is, this interpretation of what an authority figure should be causes people in positions of authority to abuse others – most often not in a dramatic way, but very subtly, for example by using language like ‘passing down’, even the word ‘boss’.

Dependency and boss-like leadership behaviour creates mindless zombies.

If you turn on the news you’ll hear them quoting X billions lost each year due to stress, traffic problems, bad weather… but what about the billions lost (or not gained) by the failure of organisations’ brains to function the vast majority of the time?

We need to change our expectations to resolve this. We need to instill behaviours that result in people being happy; and feeling entitled to happiness – rather than fostering the blind conformity behaviours we’re used to. We should fear losing our jobs if we don’t speak out as opposed to fearing losing them if we do, since we can only be effective if we do what we know is right, given we know our jobs better than anyone else (including our ‘superior’) most of the time. If this degree of trust in our judgment doesn’t exist, why were we hired in the first place?

Treating people as if they have the capability to make the right decisions relies on everyone understanding the business. The ‘higher up’ you sit in an organisation, the bigger picture view you get. You’re zoomed out, able to see the full landscape; while the ants beaver away in their tunnels, with such a narrow area of concern that it’s often constrained to what their ‘superior’ thinks, the order they’ve just been given, or the routines they have to uphold.

Being privy to more information than your team is knowledge-hoarding for power’s sake. If you can sleep at night despite the scary cashflow forecast, what makes you think your staff can’t? Isn’t that treating them like children? Wouldn’t you like them to be focused on getting you out of the hole? Or did you hire brain-dead people who don’t care or won’t understand? Doesn’t that mean you have a much bigger problem?

Need-to-know is the enemy of innovation. If you’re hoarding information, I’d be worried – not only about your organisation’s ability to innovate, but it’s ability to survive.

Machine-age thinking doesn’t match today’s right-brain world. Everyone is an individual unit of production, yes – but now they know it. They can sell their skills themselves. There are tools they can wield, many of them free. If you’re not open to this fluid, fragmented way of working, you’ll miss out on the best people – the ones who know the score and won’t accept anything less than total autonomy.

The dangerous ones are those who won’t accept anything less than total autonomy and are prepared to suffer and live in a box rather than succumb to the zombie-inducing leaders of sacred rites. I think those are called entrepreneurs :)

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