According to current motivation theory (Deci/Ryan 2008), motivation requires three essential building blocks: autonomy, competence and social integration. Autonomy plays a key role. Autonomy in the sense that people can decide for themselves according to their free will.
While autonomy is closely linked to the concept of freedom in the sense of freedom of decision or action, heteronomy, as the opposite state, is associated with power and the exercise of power. Exercise of power in the sense that the freedom of choice is restricted, for example, by having instructions and strict rules of conduct to which the participants must adhere.
If we follow this line of argument, restrictive regulations in our working lives can have a clearly negative impact on the motivational situation of those acting. Conversely, self-determination in the world of work is increasingly celebrated as a step towards increasing motivation and humanisation.
If autonomy is such a delicate field of action, how far does it go and where are its limits? Especially when it comes to regulations that are supposed to ensure or promote the productive interaction of those involved. Let’s take a closer look at some examples: Let’s take the field of action „when“, i.e. the free choice of working hours. While this topic is becoming increasingly popular in society and is considered normal in creative professions, professional footballers are just as unlikely to question the common kick-off time. the same as retailers will not question their regulated opening hours or production line operators the common start of work in the morning. Here, it is primarily the context that determines the limits of autonomy.
On the other hand, there is usually no autonomy at all in the allocation of individual tasks, the „who“. Usually, bosses distribute work according to announced rules or situational considerations to those employees whom they expect to be able to solve it most safely and quickly. While this procedure follows the „push“ principle and leaves the employees no room for manoeuvre, the changeover to „pull“, i.e. the autonomous selection of tasks by the employees themselves, promises a significant expansion of their personal autonomy. In this case, by the way, the external decision making arises more from the traditional understanding of roles than from operational necessity.
A very special case are „standards“, i.e. binding conventions on „how“ tasks are to be carried out in detail. Today, there is a widespread claim to absolute autonomy. In other words, everyone assumes that they can do things the way they see fit. Work organisation as a field of personal sovereignty. Easily recognisable by the phrases: „no one else can do it“ or „only I can do xyz“. But let’s be clear: this is in no way meant negatively by the actors and is an integral part of their individual endeavour to do their best and act to the best of their knowledge.
Unfortunately, any excessive striving for autonomy is counterproductive at this point. It prevents the exchange about the best way, the personal as well as collective improvement and, due to the multitude of individual ways, also the automation by robots or software.
At first glance, standards reduce the perceived decision-making power of the individual. But they are the highway from the Middle Ages to the modern age and the most powerful productivity tool we have. Strictly speaking, only the discussion and identification of the best way in each case, which is known and widely visible to all, enables everyone to act autonomously without conflict, because they know the foundations and limits of their collective. For autonomy is never absolute where people move as members of communities in social and moral structures. Rather, they will always be constrained by the norms of the context. Norms that are individual, historical and not even necessarily reasonable (e.g. tagesspiegel, 27.8.2013).
The key to the solution then lies in effectively orchestrating the team and replacing the autonomy of exclusively determining the personal path with the exclusive autonomy of the team to discuss, negotiate and determine the common standards. In this way, productivity can be increased without compromising the personal sense of autonomy of those involved.
Apart from that, in the search for maximum productivity, it is generally recommended to deal with the different dimensions of autonomy (what, how, who, when, with whom) in a differentiated way.
Picture: www.unsplash.com / David Marcu