Autonomy and Team Member Performance

Since I have been presenting the Q&A web conferences this year slightly less than 50% of the questions asked have related directly or indirectly to team member issues such as how to delegate, how to get them to embrace your culture, how to motivate and get engagement, how to improve productivity, how to get people to think logically etc.

Invariably my response will include a reference to Dan Pink’s suggestion that in order to get the most out of today’s knowledge workers you have to give them autonomy, and opportunity to gain mastery in their field, and a sense of purpose in their work.

If you are serious about getting the most out of your people you really do need to read Pink’s book or at the very least have a look at the various YouTube presentations he has done. here’s one of them.

He argues that “if then” or “carrot and stick” management that characterized the way people were (successfully) managed in the  industrial model of 20th century is not appropriate for today’s business models.  But it is more than just a ‘business model” issue. Today’s Gen X & Y team members, rightly or wrongly (rightly in my view), simply do not tolerate a top down, hierarchical, carrot and stick management style. Firms that  understand and respond to that are creating a clear competitive advantage.

Pink is not alone in advocating this idea. You also find essentially the same message in Ressler and Thompson’s book Why Work Sucks and How to Fix it and their more recent book Why Management Sucks And How to Fix It.

It’s important to understand that giving people autonomy is not the same as giving them carte blanche to do what they want, when they want, where they want and how they want. There’s more to it than that.

For example Dan Ariely when a professor at MIT (he’s now at Duke) conducted an experiment with three of his graduate classes.  He was interested in studying the issue of procrastination and the results have implications for the issue of giving people autonomy in the work place. This was published in his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (ch 7).

For class 1 he told students they could could hand in the three required term papers at any time before the end of the semester provided that they committed, prior to the end of the first week of class, to a self imposed submission date for each of the papers.

The papers would not be graded until the end of the semester so there was no particular advantage in what dates were selected by the students. However, if they acted rationally they would logically nominate the last day of the semester because (1) no mark advantage accrued for early submission, (2) it’s always possible they may be able to improve their work after an early completion and before submission, and (3) this choice gives them greater flexibility during the semester to plan their work around changing circumstances.

This option could be called the modified self control option which Dan described as a “tool” for managing procrastination which is a well known and documented human trait.

For class 2 he told students they could could hand in the three required term papers at any time before the end of the semester. It was totally up to them when they did it and they were not required to commit to any submission dates. This was the total self control option.

For class 3 Dan gave the students specific due dates for each of the three term papers. This is the typical approach used by professors.

Which class do you think got the best average grades?

Answer: Class 3. The students with specific deadlines imposed from above with no room to move did best on average. The next best performance was exhibited by Class 2, these were the students who were allowed to nominate submission commitment dates. And Class 1, the students who could do what they like came in last.

Ariely concluded from this study that students (people) do procrastinate and by “tightly restricting their freedom” you will cure this problem. I think there is another conclusion to draw from this however and that is, people do better when there is a clear unequivocal performance expectation.  But you might then say, doesn’t this conflict with Pink’s argument about the need to allow people autonomy?

I think not.

As suggested before, giving people autonomy does not mean ignoring the need for direction and having clear performance expectations. And as Ariely also notes when he took a close look as Class 2 results. The students who spaced their selected deadlines substantially got grades as good as those from Class 3 (the no autonomy group) but those students in class 2 who did a poor job planning their work did poorly in the assignment and pulled the average scores down.

The conclusion that Ariely draws from this is that humans procrastinate because we favor immediate over later gratification. Given this tendency, performance is enhanced by top down control and direction–I suspect this is why many managers today who “dabble” in giving autonomy and who find the result to be disappointing, resort to dictatorial management. BUT in this day and age that is not be the best management strategy because it just doesn’t cut it with today’s knowledge workers.

With that in mind, take note that Ariely’s research shows that superior work output can be achieved by also giving people autonomy and a tool to help them control their natural tendency to procrastinate, couple that with a clear communication of the desired outcome, and I would add, assistance in understanding the nature and scope of the work to be done.

This is why we recommend that you have all your team members prepare what we call a Personal Business Plan–this is equivalent to Ariel’s Class 2 option– and work with them on their own self management which gets attention focused on managing the WORK not the PEOPLE!

And that’s the mantra of Ressler & Thompson who have recently released a fantastic resource to complement their books that will enable you to do just that by  implementing a ROWE (results only work environment) in your firm, it’s called the DIY ROWE System.

You really need to be utilizing resources such as this if you’re interested in taking your firm into the 21st century and building a business model around the ideas expressed by the likes of Ressler & Thompson, Pink, Ariely, Drucker, Sinek, Covey, Maxwell …. you name them, practically anyone looking at modern management is looking in this direction.


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