Sunday, July 8, 2012

Maybe the best thing a boss can do is get out of the way... more thoughts on motivation from Daniel Pink

I want to talk
a bit about autonomy – one of Daniel Pink’s pillars of healthy motivation – but to do that I have to start with its opposite – authority.

When people want to put a happy face on authority they call it leadership. But a rose by any other name is still a rose. The trouble I’ve always had with being a leader is that it implies being a follower. To be a leader, you need followers. And, as a child of the 1960s, I’ve always detested followers.

So, if I’m a leader, I’m in the uncomfortable position of wanting to lead people I detest for being followers.

This is more than semantics. It’s the very nature of thinking of yourself as a leader. If nobody follows, you haven’t done anything. You have nothing to put on your vita. You can’t check anything off your to-do list. To be a leader, somebody has to follow.

Right, you say. Everybody can’t be a leader; somebody has to be a follower. That brings to mind my favorite blues line, attributable, I think, to Memphis Slim. “Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.” Everybody wants to lead but nobody wants to follow. Which is, I cautiously suggest, the case in just about every workplace.

I have much the same problem with the idea of being a “manager.” As Pink says so eloquently… You manage supply chains, not people. But the bigger problem is this: I have found it nearly impossible to manage my own life and I’ve been managed by quite a few people who also found it difficult to manage their own lives. It is, no doubt, easier to manage supply chains than to manage people and even harder to manage yourself. Management of people looks to me like a big trap for anyone who pursues it.

Indeed, somebody has to be in charge. I’ll grant that. Allow me to couch this in the terms I know but you can apply it to any workplace. And let me be clear, this is a what-if; I do not wish for this to happen. That said, my suspicion is if  the entire executive staff went on a leadership cruise and the ship was lost in a storm until Thanksgiving, all students would still be enrolled, all classes taught, all grass cut and all restrooms cleaned. The executive staff would, I’m certain, return to find a fully functioning outfit. They might even discover a handful of creative solutions to persistent problems.

And, if that happened, they would have to ask themselves the question I’ve been trying to raise here. They would have to ask themselves, what exactly is my job? What exactly is it to be in charge?

I hesitate to say this, but maybe the most important thing to do if you are in charge is not get in the way. Foster autonomy rather than manage, lead, threaten or reward. The work will be far more intrinsically satisfying if people are left to simply do it the way they think will be best.

Why would all the students be taught, all the restrooms cleaned? Because doing what we do for the university is our job. Most of us take intrinsic satisfaction from it. We come in, we teach. We solve problems. If two of us wind up scheduled for the same classroom, absent executive staff, we would figure out a solution. Life would go on because we would go on doing our jobs. Not for the evaluation we would get; but because our jobs are what we do, we get satisfaction from them, we see that they amount to something… most of the time.

Now, I have to be honest here. Academia is the home of autonomy. It’s hard to think of a job with more autonomy than higher education, though government and business are doing everything they can to strip autonomy out of elementary and secondary education. And the business model many in higher education are mistakenly embracing is making inroads on autonomy there, as well. But, at least for today, autonomy is still a large part of teaching in colleges and universities. Autonomy is not so prevalent in most of the jobs we do today.

In fact, in an age when research shows autonomy is more necessary than ever for the kind of work most of us do, managers and leaders seem ever less likely to embrace it.

Pink is far more specific about this. He thinks of autonomy in terms of having control over the task, the time, the technique and the team you work with. I’m always a little nervous about lists that begin with the same letter. The point he’s making, however, is that to be satisfying, work has to be engaging. It is difficult to engage when all you’re doing is satisfying somebody else’s calculus about what’s important, about what’s measurable, about what counts.

If you want people to engage, you have to turn their jobs into adventures. And, if you’re the person in charge, that takes courage.

Next: One final post on the subject – Introducing the important concept of flow, the key to mastery.


Well, after I posted this, the question it asked intrigued me, so this morning I made a list of 10 things those in charge can do for you, in addition to getting out of the way. Nothing magic about 10... it's all that would fit on a napkin. And, in no particular order...

1) Tell you what's going on. Like newspapers are supposed to do, those in charge can establish their veracity and the veracity of the outfit.If they don't, distrust will put a ceiling on what your outfit can accomplish.
2) Give you all the information you need to do the job. As Socrates said, all knowledge is good.
3) Handle the paperwork.
4) Make sure you have the materials you need to do the job.
5) Listen.
6) Help you link up with others who can help with the job you're doing. 'Help' is a key word here. Not 'assign,'
7) Inspire, with substance -- ideas, principles -- and by example.
8) Know who you are and put you in a position to succeed. If you are seen as an interchangeable part, you'll act like an interchangeable part. The best bosses appreciate your rough edges and utilize them. This is where rewards and punishments often stifle creativity and innovation.
9) Deploy your strengths where they can help the cause.
10) Do some of the work themselves so they know what's going on and what the evolving challenges are.


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