Do you take a special interest in leadership? This text is a follow-up from a ManageMagazine-article I wrote back in 2016 on how to lead, manage, and motivate knowledge workers. I’m grateful to be given renewed trust, and to be granted the privilege to delve into the complex phenomenon of autonomy, an issue central to the first piece, but which didn’t get adequate attention.
My interest in autonomy derives from a leadership perspective, but my aim is not to re-dress mainstream ideas, nor to deliver out of the box solutions. Rather I will poke around, drill down, go behind conventional truths and myths, and shed light on aspects of work-life that we are likely to miss if we come to see the organization as merely a production site (and humans as resources).
Although production is vital in a business setting, my perspective as a researcher is on the workplace as an arena for identity-making, serious play, and the forming of expert knowing, as this seems to be key to what constitutes the (post)modern knowledge organization.
understand autonomy at a deeper level, and rest assure you’ll have an advantage of recruiting and keeping your people and developing your organization
As a reader you may find the article useful, but perhaps not without giving it some contemplation and contextualization. This is a text for the curious and patient mind. Sometimes usefulness does not come from some tool, instrument, or model, but from reflection and insight: understand autonomy at a deeper level, and rest assure you’ll have an advantage recruiting and keeping your people and developing your organization.
Complexity demands Autonomy
Try to picture how to lead people without understanding who they are, how they’ve come to be who they are, and how, why, and where they will move forward. Perhaps you subscribe to the belief that all people share some fundamental mechanics, and that tapping into these with the proper mix of tools will allow you to pilot your organization as if it were a machine?
If so, it’s likely you are confusing leadership with management, treating a complex problem as if it were complicated – a hazardous affair unless your business is a conveyor belt. In any other case, the complex phenomenon of autonomy is a smart place to make a stop.
Whereas a complicated problem invites applying logic to a pre-defined systemic issue, e.g. repairing a machine, complex problems are what define the borders of our knowing. Complexity is everything we don’t know; it is what doesn’t make sense and where there’s no manual. Complex problems urge the brain to go beyond its automatic responses and usual patterns, searching for meaning where there is none.
Complicated problems, typically associated with mathematics, are ironically labeled “hard” problems, which by consequence renders matters of complexity “soft”. Seldom has mainstream lingo been further off track. Actual hard problems in business and organizing are always complex, the rest is just logic.
Complexity is making strategic decisions without the aid of safety lines or erasers; choosing between equally negative outcomes in dilemmas, interpreting the true intentions of potential business partners, having to lay off staff in times of crisis.
Leadership understood as a matter of solving complicated tasks is management. Organizations characterized by change and strategic uncertainty, of wicked problems, dilemmas, and turbulence, are only superficially understood through the optics of management. And the workforce of these organizations – often referred to as knowledge workers, values their autonomy and may not respond well to management (Dehlin, 2016). Especially not when management is reified into an authoritarian belief-system, displacing individual autonomy for the benefit of central power.
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It is hardly breaking news that knowledge workers thrive on their autonomy, that they need and require personal freedom to grow, to identify with their job, and be entrusted with decision-making. There are, however, reasons why we should take a closer look into autonomy and its significance for the knowledge workplace. Some of the myths surrounding the phenomenon are not only superficial or partly wrong, they are downright dangerous for the purpose of building long-term organizational development.
In the following, I will address three myths of autonomy that ought to be brought out from the shadows of mainstream thinking and given some nuance. The three are: Autonomy is a thing, autonomy is freedom from external control, authority, or power, and lastly, autonomy is made in solitude. I will deal with each successively.
Myth #1 Autonomy is a Thing
Researchers commonly speak of autonomy as a key ingredient to what constitutes a knowledge worker. More than 20 years ago Janz et al., (1997) stated that: “Autonomy may be the most critical concern in knowledge worker teams, as knowledge workers prefer autonomy more than any other job characteristic” (p. 879).
What exactly autonomy is, however, is somewhat harder to get a grasp on. For the most it seems treated as a more or less self-evident container of some diffuse substance, usually quantified in the sense that any given worker possess more or less of it, as illustrated by esteemed professor Donald Hislop’s (2009) statement that: “Available evidence (…) suggests that knowledge workers (…) place a lot of importance on having high levels of autonomy at work” (p. 249). So, we know that workers prefer more of it rather than less, but what is “it” exactly? Is autonomy an “it”, at all?
Autonomy is commonly spoken of as an entity that one either possesses or not; a person is autonomous or he has autonomy. Seen as entity, autonomy can be passed on from one person to another or handed down from one hierarchical level to another. Autonomy in this sense can be transferred from a position of greater to less power, as were it some structural commodity: an emperor having power over a slave may grant him his freedom; a business manager may grant autonomy to a team or a worker.
The commodification of autonomy offers a superficial depiction at best, and shifting the perspective from “power over” (e.g. I have the power over you, but I may grant you a little) to “power to”, autonomy becomes a far more complex issue, a feature of behavior that grows as the individual matures.
We shall later return to different conceptions of power and implications for autonomy, but at this point, the proposition is that autonomy is as much alive and complex as the individual to which it is attributed.
As a noun autonomy merely expresses a potential or ability, and only as a verb does autonomy come to life as it is acted out in a social and physical world. This implies that autonomy as a real-life phenomenon is contextual and complex just as it is dynamic and emergent. Quantification falls short as a depicter in this regard, a paradox considering how we intuitively come to speak of people as being more or less autonomous or having more or less autonomy.
autonomy in a work situation is rarely either present or not, just as freedom is rarely total or absent
Perhaps one should rather talk about different forms, modalities, or styles of autonomous expression (Crites, 1971), mindful that autonomy in a work situation is rarely either present or not, just as freedom is rarely total or absent. As “style” autonomy “has a unity of form through time, a form revealed only in the action as a whole” (Crites, 1971: p. 292), and as such autonomy is hard to pin down in “exact terms”.
Autonomy is thus more aptly grasped through adjectives and adverbs, than degrees or quantities, and we should change our business jargon and narratives accordingly. And as a consequence, we may find new grounds for creative leadership.
Myth #2 Autonomy is Freedom from External Control, Authority, or Power
An important stage in the development of identity is when the toddler says: “No, me do it”. Perhaps not startling knowledge, but now consider at what age human beings stop having this desire? At which point does the employee not desire work autonomy anymore? (And to the extent he actually does, what could it be a sign of?)
Following Mead’s (1934) ideas of the self, the source of autonomy is the spontaneous potential for creative action, for free expression, improvisation, and genuine novelty (i.e. the “I”). A human being is autonomous to the extent that he is capable of exercising free will in a given moment, a phenomenon commonly referred to as “positive freedom” by philosophers (Taylor, 1985).
As basic and trivial this may sound as to what constitutes the human condition, in today’s agora the notion of free will (positive freedom) is heavily contested, and scholars, (popular) science podcasters and authors, expand on propositions from neuroscience and retrospective sensemaking, to posit that free will does in fact not exist.
By the time our frontal lobes rationalize and make sense of experience, they say, the experience is already structured by the sensuous apparatus, making the mind a mere spectator of a predestined reality (e.g. Weick, 1979; 1995; Libet, 1999; Harris, 2012). I suspect George Mead, rooted in the pragmatist “both/and” canon, would lash out at such radical either/or dualism, were he alive, his point being that spontaneous free will is indeed real, not as a thing unto itself, but as an emergent feature of identity-forming.
autonomy is never absolute or total, but always in a relation to others and to past experience
Autonomy is what makes identity personal and unique. It follows, however, that autonomy is never absolute or total, but always in a relation to others and to past experience. And the extent to which we are free from external restrictions is depicted by the term “negative freedom” (Taylor, 1985).
Negative freedom denotes that there are limitations to positive freedom, as marked by our present and past relation to social and physical nature. Our past and present experience (of otherness) do not, however, determine our reality fully; it only provides tools for further reality-construction (Dewey, 1929).
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Negative freedom comes in multiple versions, and the common myth is that autonomy is little more than to be free from external control exercised by some authority greater than the individual. “Negative freedom” and “power over” are thus two sides of the same coin, and agency theory is a brilliant example from the world of business: the principal opts for control over the agent, while the agent strives for negative freedom, thus forming an asymmetrical powerplay.
To be free from external control, as is the aim of the agent, is, however, just part of the story, and a marginal one at that. The slave is not defined in full by his escape from the emperor, as the emperor is not defined by his power over the slave. At its core, autonomy concerns the positive freedom to (mutual) identity-creation. Any negative power-relation between beings is merely part of such autonomous identity forming. I will now dig deeper into the social aspect of what may seem individual, attempting to show that autonomy is not the one or the other but a(n emergent) product of both.
Myth #3 Autonomy is made in Solitude
Autonomy is, as opposed to how it is cursorily reflected in agency theory, always both positive and negative; it represents a freedom to grow and construct personal identity.
Choice, a term commonly associated with autonomy (Locke et al. 2011), plays some role in this, but far from the lead. Indeed, choice as the locus of individual control is akin to rational choice theory, which according to Aguiar and de Fransisco (2009) is a canon explaining: “(…) all social action in terms of the decisions made by an individual or a group of individuals in a given context, the consequences of those decisions, and an assumption about the individuals’ reasons for having made the decision, namely that individuals will try to maximize their benefits (whatever that benefit may be)” (p. 548).
Whereas choice presumes a (given) set of alternatives, creativity knows few boundaries. Decision-making is thus a marginal part of autonomy, a technical-rational caricature of creativity, and strictly speaking closer to negative freedom than positive. Choosing between café latte and americano is a very superficial exercise of autonomous will. Seeking a life as the workplace eremite, e.g. the socially distant professor, equally so (does a professor love anything more than to be cited by peers?).
Having the opportunity to genuinely create identity at work, to produce one’s own alternatives (not to choose between those given by others), to pursue interesting venues, finding a personal voice, is tied to positive autonomy. But even such profound exercise of positive autonomy is both restricted by, and made possible by, the negative relations to colleagues, business plans and structures, market demands and opportunities, etc.
Social and physical structures are tools for identity-forming, but they can become restraint jackets. They are constraints to what is possible, but it is paradoxically through these constraints the individual worker exercises positive autonomy. In principle, structures facilitate as much as they constrain; boundaries liberate (Thompson, 2005). In the words of Dewey (1938): “there is no intellectual growth without some reconstruction, some remaking, of impulses and desires in the form in which they first show themselves” (p. 64).
Uniqueness implies difference from someone and something; it emerges from contrast. The baby infant, Mead (1934) explains, must first take the role of his mother to invent himself as someone different from her, and thus he is always bound to be similar to, whilst different from, her.
Lynch (2013) makes a similar observation: “(…) research suggests that even during adolescence, the period during which relying on oneself or independence has traditionally been thought to play an important developmental role, freely choosing to rely on others, including one’s parents, for emotional supports can have important benefits for well-being” (Lynch, 2013: p. 302). A key to understanding autonomy is to recognize that the infant’s desire to escape is essentially a desire to create identity; negative freedom collapses into positive freedom.
Implications for organizing
Notice how this de-mythification collapses common dichotomies: Individual/collective, positive/negative, freedom/constraint, creativity/structure. On the level of the workplace, one implication is that personal and collective growth are not antagonists, they presume each other. For a workplace dedicated to growth and not just survival (Baunsgaard 2020), worker autonomy is something of a balancing act, where positive and negative autonomy are co-emergent properties of creative professional minds.
A manager should ask herself, which version of autonomy she ought to pursue as a model for organization (positive or negative?), knowing that both are always at hand. From the preceding arguments, it should be apparent, however, that granting your employees (degrees of) negative freedom, empowering them to make decisions and choose between alternatives, is not sufficient for the purpose of organizational growth.
Autonomy is not so much the ability to make individual decisions, as it is how we come to think of, and rationalize, a decision as individual. And it is less escape from control than it is desire to grow.
Without autonomy, the greatest skills can amount to little more than re-production and imitation
Autonomy in the workplace concerns developing a personal voice, an identity, from which it is possible to build professional expertise. Without autonomy, the greatest skills can amount to little more than re-production and imitation. An autonomous worker utilizes those same skills, those hours of imitation and repetition, to create a voice of his own. And he never looks back.
The autonomous worker develops his autonomy, not in isolation from the social workspace, but as part of it, something which points to another balancing act for the manager to grapple with: creating the best possible conditions for both individuality and collectivity.
Here the manager may play a role as a significant other, a manager of meaning (Baunsgaard & Clegg, 2013), challenging and supporting, but first and foremost acknowledging and seeing, as well as facilitating processes where workers spur each other’s creativity and take mutual responsibility for end results (Dehlin, 2016).
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