Chained Brains in Pain

Have you ever been to a menu-less restaurant, one where you had no choice as to what to eat? Doesn’t this sound wrong, it seems like this kind of restaurant wouldn’t last long? What if when you called this restaurant for a reservation, they told you when you had to be there instead of you deciding at what time you would like to arrive, would this increase your excitement? If you’re still open to travelling out and paying to be both told what and when to eat, how would you feel if when you showed up you were told where and with whom you would dine? This type of dining experience may make for a memorable meal, but not the kind of memory upon which you would look back favorably.

How about when you’re driving down the road and a police car pulls in behind you, how does that make you feel? Do you feel safer and free? Do you think, fantastic, I’m so glad we have the fine folk in blue around? Or, do you think, what does this cop want? I’m just minding my own business, leave me alone. Do we consider the hot breath of authority scalding the back of our neck calming and relaxing or do we feel constrained and restricted?

Finally, as kids we didn’t have a lot of choices growing up. It seemed like we were constantly being told where to go, when to be there, what to do, and with whom we could hang out. Our education was compulsory. We didn’t choose much of anything in our early years. Childhood was about heaping up one helping of have to on to another. It felt like a never ending pile of spinach to chew through.


Having the heavy hand of authority ever present eliminating choices while directing you to behave a certain way isn’t much fun. Nonetheless, models of motivation built around authority remain the standard operating procedure in many contexts still today. Our current education and employment environments remain constructed around ideas developed almost one hundred years ago. Our parenting practices pursue largely the same approaches. Most of us view the primary drivers for each of us as either moving away from something painful or a desire to move towards something that is pleasurable. It is comfort we crave and discomfort we dread. We’re running from the latter and towards the former. This is the axis of action our brains are evaluating in order to determine what to do. These ideas follow the work of behaviorist B.F. Skinner and his dog experiments from many decades ago proving the power of both positive and negative reinforcement. Frederick Taylor and his concept of Scientific Management brought Skinner’s efforts from the lab into the workplace. Taylor gave us the idea of being able to measure all aspects of a worker’s performance in order to monitor and incent productivity. Following the thinking of people like Skinner and Taylor has produced several generations of business leaders that hold a core belief that work is a four letter word for most people. This belief fuels an attitude of management that believes workers are trying to do as little as possible. Therefore, it is management’s responsibility to direct, control, reward, and punish employees in order for organizational objectives to be met. Subscribers to this school of thought believe management is about control and supervision. Considerations about worker’s development, personal desires, and individual circumstances are ignored.

Classic management clings to authority as its core responsibility. Where there’s greater authority, there’s less autonomy. We can have control or creativity. We can’t have both. There’s a decision on how to find the balance between compliance and flexibility. When the Work From Home (WFH) was forced upon us in 2020, many managers and workers were lost trying to understand their functions in the new context. Managers found themselves struggling to keep tabs on staff. Businesses that specialize in creating services and software that remotely tracks employee efforts are doing brisk business. Employers that rely on a command and control structure for employee management have been quick to access these types of resources. Keeping tabs on which tabs staff are browsing has become the tool to adapt for these managers. Time management, attendance monitoring, determining who is accessing which files when, and more have become new ways of watching workers. It’s no longer just emails and phone calls. Big Brother can stare from almost anywhere.

Other managers are realizing what other forward thinking companies have known for a number of years. That is, monitoring attendance and tasks is more trouble than it is worth. Not only is it deeply demotivating for staff, it isn’t adding value to the organization. Management for these businesses is about ensuring employees are equipped with the resources they need, provided solid guidance as to direction, then left to work on their own. Leaders with this mindset seek to define their workplaces as ROWE. Results Only Work Environments aren’t worried about micro-managing and overseeing staff’s every move. It is about defining business beneficial outcomes and then working to ensure staff are provided the tools, resources, and conditions to deliver. Staff are then given wide latitude to implement. Daniel Pink writes in his book Drive, “In a ROWE workplace, people don’t have schedules. They show up when they want. They don’t have to be in the office at a certain time—or any time, for that matter. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it, and where they do it is up to them.” Management in ROWE is about enabling and not about supervision.

Pink observes that Jet Blue, since its inception in 2000, has staffed its customer service team with only employees that work from home. The fact that its service rankings are better than its competitors is tied to happy employees being afforded the freedom to not just work from home but handle incoming service inquiries with a wide measure of freedom. Their job is to serve customers, not follow a script. With the freedom given, employees are more engaged. They are able to better empathize with concerned customers and work together to benefit both business and customer. Contrast this with the mind numbing “service” offered by call centers staffed in remote corners of the world completely disconnected from a business managed by scripts. Staff are driven by compliance. They have no interest in being there and no connection to customers. Which type of business would you rather spend your hard earned money at? Which type of business would you rather work at? Which type of business would you rather be an owner in?

How much of your management involves monitoring? What is the balance of your management efforts across the following broad buckets of activity? What percentage of management time is spent in each area? Imposing control, enforcing compliance, training and educating staff, sourcing tools to help staff improve, working to understand their struggles, seeking ways to clear the path for staff.

Do we like to go to work where we’re surrounded by CCTVs recording our every move? Even under the guise of providing a safe environment, does this make us feel valued? Do we enjoy knowing that every syllable spoken on the phone and every word we write in an email are being recorded? Deep down, do we believe the reason things are being recorded is to improve customer service? Or is it possible, it’s more performance management and compliance driving these decisions? Does knowing that your every move is being recorded and scrutinized make you feel trusted? Does it make you feel appreciated?

If you’re in a position of authority over someone, when do you consider offering autonomy? If you’re a parent, for example, when do you give your kids room to roam? Whether as a parent, coach, teacher, or employer, we’re likely to extend autonomy to those we trust. Where we trust that someone will behave responsibly and properly, we’ll give them space to make their own decisions. We will extend autonomy where we trust the context in which they will be operating to be safe for their skills. Do they have the proper resources? If we trust they have the skills and tools needed to succeed, we’re more likely to afford autonomy. If we trust our dog to stay safe, well behaved, and near by, we let her run loose. If we don’t trust our dog, we keep her held tightly on the leash. We afford autonomy where we trust.

Our fundamental job as leaders is to give rope, offer support, and reign in where needed. It’s not hands off. It’s not leaving others entirely to their own devices. It’s about setting them up for success by clearing a path and then getting out of their way.

In the mid 1960s two sociologists conducted a study that surveyed over 3,000 Americans about their work lives. A key finding of Kohn and Schooler was that there was a strong positive relationship between job satisfaction and “occupational self direction.” This was a term the researchers coined which reflected the ability of the worker to have some influence over what and how they spent their work day. In the Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt reflects on this study, “Men who were closely supervised in jobs of low complexity and much routine showed the highest degree of alienation (feeling powerless, dissatisfied, and separated from the work). Men who had more latitude in deciding how they approached work that was varied and challenging tended to enjoy their work much more.” Those mind-numbing, monotonous, repetitive, and routine jobs are called soul sucking for a reason. Acting like a cog in a machine contributes to one feeling like just that.

John Strelecky writes in The Big Five for Life, “Talented people don’t need someone monitoring their behavior, Joe. They don’t do a great job because someone’s watching them. They do a great job because that’s who they are, and they like what they do.”

The good news is that most of us don’t work in factory like jobs anymore. The knowledge economy is populated with pencil pushers that are probed to problem solve throughout their day. Increased flexibility as to how the work may be approached affords opportunity for both creative solutions and enhanced motivation and commitment from workers.  Tom Asacker in The Business of Belief notes, “We have become enamored with independence, autonomy, and the freedom to choose, to be the authors of our lives.”  In the book Drive, Pink introduces us to three drivers of individual motivation which ambitious employers would be wise to foster in their workforce. The linchpin of Pink’s three drivers is autonomy.

Pink, suggests that companies conduct an autonomy audit in order to gauge where management and staff see themselves. The exercise is intended to heighten awareness of the present state. It is a simple and clarifying exercise in which you pose four questions to staff asking them to provide answers in the form of a ranking between zero and ten. Zero would be the lowest level of discretion afforded and ten would represent complete control being in the hands of staff. It is important that staff are provided the opportunity to answer privately. Responders must be anonymous otherwise the quality of response may reasonably be questioned as not being honest and giving the company feedback it wants to hear instead of needs to hear. Additionally, have management answer these questions in advance of providing to staff.

The questions are:

  1. How much autonomy do you have over your tasks at work—your main responsibilities and what you do in a given day?
  2. How much autonomy do you have over your time at work—for instance, when you arrive, when you leave, and how you allocate your hours each day?
  3. How much autonomy do you have over your team at work—that is, to what extent are you able to choose the people with whom you typically collaborate?
  4. How much autonomy do you have over your technique at work—how you actually perform the main responsibilities of your job?

Once responses have been provided, tabulate the results by summing the scores across the four questions and determining the average in the business and/or department. Determine the average response per question as well. Studying the average of individual questions will help highlight strengths and weaknesses. Additional insight can be gleaned where management’s and staff’s responses are compared. Are there questions where staff feel they have strong autonomy? Are the answers between management and staff similar? This simple, quick, and zero-cost approach will help shine the light of truth on how your company operates with respect to allocating autonomy to staff.

If as parents our kids need constant babysitting, or as teachers our students won’t pick up a book on their own, or as managers our staff won’t act without direction, we’ve let those that are counting on us down.

Undertaking the above autonomy audit will build your awareness as to where your business stands. Are staff and management aligned in their perceptions? Are the numbers what you thought they would be? Do you consider a score lower than 20 satisfactory? What is a good target for you to strive toward? Could you do better on the autonomy front? In a coming article we will offer a series of suggestions for bolstering autonomy which are sure to improve staff morale and motivation.