Thursday, 19 November 2009

The Tyranny Of Freedom?

The long months of sitting in a dusty library for twelve hours a day reading for my dissertation (topic: autonomous motivation in an IT service management organisation) had taken their toll. Actually I’m doing a huge disservice to Sheffield University’s library (or to use its correct title Information Commons): it’s not dusty in the slightest, it’s a sparkling new, modern construction designed for the 21st century. The building is environmentally friendly, spacious and light and is packed with nifty little Sun Ray kiosk workstations alongside normal PCs. It has even won awards for being such a cool construction.

Anyway, the point is that I had spent a great deal of time inactive and sedentary - sitting on my gluteus maximus if you like. The pounds were piling up and I was feeling decidedly unhealthy so I joined a gym. This too is a nice 21st century affair – I love the way all the cardio-vascular machines have LCD monitors on the top so that while I’m cross-training I can flick between the cricket and football (sorry, that’s soccer for you guys across the Atlantic). I also rather ashamedly spend a lot of time watching pop videos and am amazed by the awfulness of many (Calvin Harris and a few others excepted).

One of the channels features an advert that is run regularly. It is also shown on terrestrial TV - you may have even seen it. The advert promotes an LG product, and begins with the assertion “the day you were born was the last day that you were truly free”. The piece then goes on to intimate that at school, work and in various other contexts one is “boxed in and constrained”. It ends with images of shiny happy people being free and enjoying life. As you would expect, these closing frames link the portrayed elysian state of being with LG’s own products. It can be likened to a prosaic and rather unflattering pastiche of Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality, but it was useful in that it prompted thoughts about autonomy in the workplace.

As you may be aware I’m a huge advocate of increasing autonomy – or freedom – in the workplace. A lot of research indicates that autonomy provides employees with the freedom to innovate, to deal with issues as they arise, to help drive change. It’s the antithesis to centralised command and control systems and top heavy hierarchies, which result in sluggish change-resistant cultures. Management approaches including systems thinking, socio-technical systems and complexity theory all suggest beneficial outcomes of autonomy. In the work psychology literature there has been a major focus on autonomy since Herzberg in the 1950s, and also Turner and Lawrence in the 1960s. For example studies of the hugely influential Job Characteristics Model found a reliable relationship between autonomy and job satisfaction. Similarly, research into Karasek’s Demand-Control-Strain thesis indicated links between (a lack of) autonomy and stress. There are very many more studies, with outcomes including proactivity, receptivity to change and entrepreneurial activity to name but a few.

Thus not too long ago my conception of workplace autonomy was as an unmitigated good. The thoughts of management thinkers such as Gerald Fairtlough and Ricardo Semler armed me with the arguments to cement this view. Furthermore commentators influenced by a theory known as complexity were leading me to an almost Darwinian position on this topic. It seemed logical: employees with greater autonomy were happier, more innovative, and weren't hindered by machiavellian (at best), or barely competent (at worst) superiors. The enterprise would learn more (because the individuals themselves would be motivated to learn and apply their learning), and would embrace change via the organic internal culture of the company. Chaos? Anarchy? I suggested such thorny issues could be dealt with through good governance.

The great thing about learning is having your assumptions tested and challenged. 'Wow!' moments occur when you throw away the old paradigm and pick up a new one. It's happened to me many times: in relation to jazz, opera and downtempo electronica for example. My old mindset didn't hold these musical forms in high esteem, but when I finally understood what each of these genres were about, the 'wow!' happened. My view of autonomy was similarly challenged by Barry Schwartz's 2000 paper, the title of which I stole as the headline for this blog entry. What I learnt from Schwartz and others was that freedom isn't bad per se, it's just that the idea of freedom-as-uquestioned-good is prevalent through society and influences everyone, from the person in the street to academics constructing theories.

Thus LG’s advertising agency were more than likely tapping into the ubiquity of western society's views of freedom & autonomy - which I clearly subscribed to back then. But further reading seemed to indicate that constraints and limits are important. Barry Schwartz used the example of language - a highly liberating construct, but it is the constraints - or rules - of language that make communication possible. The scene in the LG ad where the bored kid is sat in a classroom is supposed to be a bad thing - but its a great thing! Sure our natural inclination is to frolic in the sun, but being made to sit and learn about art or history or even psychology is a more lasting pleasure. The former is immediate gratification - the latter is a deeper kind of inner happiness.

A chap called Czikszentmihalyi named this state flow, and his 1989 research found it happened more often at work than during lesiure time. Interesting, isn't it? I remain strongly wedded to my view that autonomy is of vital importance in contemporary, knowledge-based industries. So ensure that your work environment is designed so that your employees have the greatest amount of choice about how they go about and schedule their work. Minimise hierarchy and reduce the influence of self-serving and/or obsolete superiors. Allow staff the freedom to learn, innovate and create. But don't forget the constraints: goals, standards, vision, responsibility - for these are the glue that makes it all work.

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