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Designing for autonomy

My brain has continued to be rocked on a page by page basis as I read through Punished by Rewards.  It’s leading me down some very weird and potentially interesting thought paths.

Some general impressions.  Intrinsic motivation, as defined by the book, seems to be a synonym for “self-driven interest”.  An honest interest and desire to seek out a certain activity, experience, etc.  Like the book Drive which I read before, intrinsic motivation seems to be very closely tied with autonomy.  Basically, the only way to really enjoy something for itself is to enjoy it on your own terms, with your own intentions, with the least amount of outside control exerted on you as possible.

In fact, as I start learning more about it, extrinsic rewards are really just a form of control.  Control is, if you think about it, enforced consequences.  If you do this, then this will happen.  If that control is coming from outside yourself, it is most likely taking the form of rewards and punishments.  Therefore, rewards and punishments are ways to offset the balance of power, and control, to benefit the rewarder, or the punisher.

Most rewards and punishments, I’m realizing, are given by someone who for some reason or another 1) has some level of control over me, and 2) is using that reward/punishment as a means to maintain that power.  Rewards and punishments help keep the powers-that-be in power.  They are the puppet strings.  They live higher up the cause and effect ladder than we do, and therefore they are closer to the source of all control.

That is, unless you strive to be self-driven, self-determined, and self-motivating.  To be your own boss.

And of course it makes sense. Teachers need to stay in control of their students, and the classroom.  Managers need to stay in control of their employees, and the jobs that need to get done.  We willingly opt in to these hierarchies of power in order to work better as a group.  So chaos and anarchy don’t reign.

Only problem is that, when we are operating within a power dynamic, we behave differently.  We are highly attuned to leadership, authority, etc, and our brains behave differently when we are being watched, or controlled.  Notice how your driving changes when you see a cop in your rear view mirror.  Do you drive more safely?  Not necessarily.  You drive more “invisibly”.  You attempt to stand out less, be less likely to be singled-out for transgression.  Same goes when a teacher walks down your aisle looking at what people are working on.  Or your boss comes over.  Or you’re at a client dinner.  Our brains shift into a more narrow mode where we attempt to comply.  Which is entirely different from the creative thinking that you might do on your own, when nothing is on the line, when you have nobody to answer to and nothing to lose.  When you’re with peers there is not as much fear of standing out… in fact, it’s desirable to differentiate yourself somehow, to be memorable.

Those times when I’m thinking creatively, ignorant of any authority over me, are the times that I do my best work (or, at least the most fulfilling kind).  And it seems that the science also says that this is true… that we work best when we feel autonomous, when we are driven by our own interests, and are able to enjoy the results of our work because they are ours, and not necessarily because we were awarded it by someone else.

How can something like a company, which is basically a power hierarchy, design for autonomy.  To not even safe-guard its own control?  Can something like that even exist?  Or is the unprotected power structure quickly dismantled?  Can the controller ever be okay with the tools used to dismantle itself?

67 Responses to “Designing for autonomy”

  1. If you can keep your head in full view of a leader, and do what you know is right with confidence, think and speak clearly about your actions, then you will quickly become a leader. Hierarchies reward the quality of intelligent confidence because people *want* to be led by such people.

    Regarding a company of autonomous people: I think you can get close, mainly by lucking out in finding great people whose interest and vision coincides or compliments your own, and ideally who’s economic rewards will be higher within your organization than outside of it. But the tendency to alter behavior within a hierarchy has a name, and it is a universal human quality: cowardice.

  2. You wrote, some posts back, about results-driven work environments where workers had autonomy on practically everything that wasn’t the thing they were specifically accomplishing (the result). I guess that’s the closest most workplaces would get to autonomy…

    Other things which I guess I would put under “design to allow maximum autonomy” is to flatten the hierarchy as much as possible, don’t have too many layers of hierarchy. I’m not even quite able to articulate why these seem linked, but my head says they do :)

  3. Buster Benson says:

    @ Gilgamesh — “But the tendency to alter behavior within a hierarchy has a name, and it is a universal human quality: cowardice.”

    That seems like a bit of a leap to me. All organizations in our current world attempt to alter behavior by providing incentives to do what they want you to do. Salaries, bonuses, promotions, etc are all attempts to alter behavior, but I haven’t really ever heard that described as cowardice. Care to expand on that thought?

    @ Ricky — ROWE (results-only work environments) are interesting at first, in the sense that they allow lots more autonomy than most environments, but in practice it seems that the results themselves (the most “important” part of the work, presumably) are still attached to extrinsic motivators, and the main warning of the book I’m reading is that extrinsic rewards are most dangerous when attached to the truly important/creative kinds of work. How to measure results when the work expected is innovation and creativity?

  4. ROWE is partially a derivative of Semco, the great-granddaddy of democratic workplaces. check out CEO ricardo semler’s books Maverick and the seven-day weekend. or check the goog: http://www.google.ca/search?q=ricardo+semler

    Other companies you might want to look at: WL Gore, Davita, and the companies on this list:

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