The Building Blocks of Motivation 3.0: Autonomy

(Cover Photo by Victor Rodriguez on Unsplash)

(This series of posts is based on journalist and author Dan Pink’s book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” available here.)

In the last post, we’ve seen that self-determination theory holds there are 3 fundamental human needs.

In this post, we will be focusing on the first, autonomy.

“Row, Row, Row Your Boat…”

Have you heard of ROWE?

ROWE stands for ‘Results Only Work Environment’; it’s essentially a human resource management strategy, created by Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler.

In ROWE workplaces, people choose where, when and how they work.

You might be wondering: “As a manager, how can I know what my employees are doing if they’re not at the office?”.

This exact question was posed to CEO Jeff Gunther, an early adopter of the ROWE model. He said he didn’t need to worry about what his employees we’re doing and how they were doing it, because the results spoke for themselves; productivity went up significantly.

But, why were his employees so productive?

Partly because they had the mental freedom to focus on their work as opposed to worrying about their manager(s) constantly breathing down their neck and scrutinizing their work. But more importantly, they were given considerable freedom (i.e. autonomy) over their work.

His secret? He sees his employees not as resources, but as partners.

Ok, but how does autonomy relate to management?

The idea of management, broadly, is based on 2 assumptions (Pink 88):

  1. To take action or move forward, people need to be given (or promised) reward or a punishment needs to be applied (or promised); without it, they are static.
  2. People need direction; without it, they wander aimlessly

Is this true though? Is this how we are naturally?

The findings of psychology suggest ‘No’. In fact, they suggest that we are naturally curious and self-directed.

If this is the case, then the old management paradigm mentioned above is actually suppressing our basic nature. We need something that taps into our basic nature rather than opposes or suppresses it, Pink explains.

The first element of this basic nature is our need and capacity for self-direction (AKA autonomy), as proposed by the self-determination theorists.

What exactly is autonomy?

“Autonomous motivation involves behaving with a full sense of volition and choice, whereas controlled motivation involves behaving with the experience of pressure and demand toward specific outcomes that comes from forces perceived to be external to the self” (qtd. in Pink 90)

In addition, it’s important to notice that autonomy is different than independence; whereas independence is a concept that is often associated with individualism (i.e. focus on one’s self), autonomy need not be that way; it simply means acting with choice, which means we can both be autonomous and interdependent with others at the same time. (Pink 90)

According to many recent studies, autonomy is associated with “greater conceptual understanding, better grades, enhanced persistence at school and in sporting activities, higher productivity, less burnout, and greater levels of psychological well-being.” (qtd. in Pink 91).

Those effects extend to the workplace, too. A 2004 study reported greater job satisfaction among employees whose bosses offered ‘autonomy 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” (Pink 91).

Companies benefit from the positive effects of autonomy as well. Researchers at Cornell University studied 320 small businesses, half of which granted workers autonomy, the other half relying 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 turnover (Pink 91).

So, how does a company make the best use of autonomy?

By granting their employees autonomy over their task, their time, their technique and their team.

Task

In the 1930s and 1940s, a company named ‘3M’ tried something new. The president and chairman William McKnight decided to give his employees a measure of autonomy by allowing them to work on any task they wanted to during a maximum of 15% of their time they spent at work (Pink 94). This turned out to be one of the greatest decisions he’d ever made, because it brought amazing success to his company.

Surprisingly, only a small number of companies today apply these principles to their business. It’s surprising because the companies that have applied them have seen great results.

Take Google for example. Google has allowed its employees to use 20% of their time to work on a side project (Google retains the intellectual property rights of anything that is created during this time); the vast majority of its new inventions (e.g. new products, services, etc.) have come from this 20% time.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

So here is a tangible example of the positive effect autonomy has on employee creativity and productivity.

Time

Have you ever wondered why lawyers, as a group, are so miserable?

Social scientists have found 3 reasons to explain this (Pink 98):

1) Pessimism:

Pessimism is associated with low levels of what psychologists call “subjective well-being”; needless to say, it’s a detriment in most jobs. However, practicing law seems to be an exception; pessimism actually makes better lawyers, says psychologist Martin Seligman.

2) Law is zero-sum:

Most enterprises are positive-sum. For example, business operates on a win-win basis in that when someone sells a good or service to another interested person, both parties are better off after the transaction (the seller receives compensation, the client fulfills a need or a desire).

Law, on the other hand, is often zero-sum because generally, law cases involves pitting against each other two opposing parties; most of the time there will be one winner and one loser.

3) Low levels of autonomy:

Lawyers often have little decision-making power. Why, you ask?

Because of the billable hour; what Pink thinks is the most autonomy-draining mechanism ever invented.

Because lawyers charge for their time, they must diligently keep track of their time, which brings their focus away from the output of their work (solving a client’s problem) to the input (piling up as many hours as possible). In doing so, lawyers often have their intrinsic desire to do good (i.e. help their client) replaced by an extrinsic reward, i.e. obtaining compensation.

As seen in a previous post, this can lead to unethical behavior (e.g. charging more hours than was actually worked), short-term thinking, and addictive behavior. Not to mention that the connection between the time spent and the amount of work produced is usually irregular and unpredictable.

If the billable hour has an opposite, it’s the ROWE (Results Only Work Environment). Best Buy was the first big company to adopt ROWE (in its corporate offices); under this model, their employees were given much more freedom over their time. How did it turn out?

“Salaried people put in as much time as it takes to do their work. Hourly employees in the program work a set number of hours to comply with federal labor regulations, but they get to choose when. Those employees report better relationships with family and friends, more company loyalty, and more focus and energy. Productivity has increased by 35%, and voluntary turnover is 320 basis points lower than in teams that have not made the change. Employees say they don’t know whether they work fewer hours—they’ve stopped counting.” (qtd. in Pink 101)

Technique

You’ve probably had one bad experience with a customer service representative before; if you’re like most people, you’ve had many. Why is this the case?

Generally, customer service representatives work long hours, receive low pay, perform repeated routine and mundane tasks (i.e. call clients, usually following a script), are monitored closely and receive little, if any, feedback. With this in mind, it isn’t surprising to note that call centers regularly have the highest turnover rates in the industry.

Tony Hsieh, founder of the online shoe retailer Zappos, has chosen to approach customer service differently; he chooses to allows his customer service reps to speak to the customers however they want; in other words, he gives them autonomy over technique (i.e. how they do their job). Since he’s implemented this, Zappos has consistently ranked as one of the best companies for customer service in the United States (Pink 103).

Others are doing similar things elsewhere; some companies are allowing their customer service reps to receive calls from their homes, a practice known as “homeshoring” (Pink 103). No commute, no monitoring and more autonomy has resulted in increase job satisfaction and productivity.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Team

I’ll let Dan explain this one:

“Ample research has shown that people working in self-organized teams are more satisfied than those working in inherited teams. Likewise, studies by Deci and others have shown that people high in intrinsic motivation are better coworkers. […] If you want to work with more Type I’s, the best strategy is to become one yourself. Autonomy, it turns out, can be contagious.” (qtd. in Pink 106)

“So, where do I go from here?”

Because the assumptions of Motivation 2.0 are still fresh in our minds, a transition to Motivation 3.0. will not and should not happen all at once; organizations must provide support structures to ease the transition for their employees (Pink 107).

Also, individuals value different aspects of autonomy, so it’s wise to ask each employee what is important to them when determining what exactly to implement.

If you are not convinced about what I’m saying, if you need to see it to believe it, I highly suggest experimenting. Try granting more freedom to your employees, I guarantee you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find!

Next time: Mastery


References

Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Canongate, 2010.

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