Autonomy vs. standards – the fine line to productivity

Autonomie vs. Standards – der schmale Grat zur Produktivität
8. Februar 2023
Need for Speed
4. März 2023

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: / David Marcu

Ger­man version