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The essential dilemma for managers is how to balance autonomy and control.

Years ago, management guru Peter Drucker told us to treat each employee as a volunteer. When he wrote that, command and control was in full force. These days, we have acknowledged that the top-down approach is outdated and have tried to replace it with such notions as servant leadership, compassionate leadership, loose-tight leadership and other, more considerate variants.

They are helpful approaches, but perhaps the best replacement would be autonomy-and-control leadership, highlighting that essential workplace tension while turning it into a positive duality.

To be fully realized, it needs to be offered after structural changes in most organizations. But even when that’s done – or not done, as is more likely – a continual need will exist in the interactions that interlace our work day for colleagues, even in the most egalitarian and consensual situations, to find a proper balance between autonomy and some sensible level of co-ordinated control.

Autonomy is a key human motivator and has emerged in recent years as requiring more attention by managers. But as we anticipate a return to the office, it has been diluted into calls for more flexibility. Autonomy is more than flexibility.

Cross-cultural researcher Shalom Schwartz has identified 10 universal human values, with self-direction prominent: Independent thought and action – choosing, creating and exploring. We crave autonomy, but nobody is an island, so when we come together in organizations it can be difficult to attain autonomy when everyone’s individual efforts must be co-ordinated.

Social scientist Raine Eisler calls the way we traditionally co-ordinate ourselves the “dominator hierarchy.” That description likely describes your workplace.

But researcher Matt K. Parker has highlighted an alternative approach: radical collaboration, which offers more freedom and autonomy, and is practised in a small but growing group of corporations. Their practices can seem bizarre to those accustomed to a domination standard, but the companies he studied include Haier, whose frigidaires or air conditioners may grace your house; and Morning Star, the largest tomato processor in the world by volume, which may provide your tomato paste, diced tomatoes and similar canned products.

At the core of their approach is autonomy, control over one’s environment, framed around a small team, as well as managerial devolution. It’s vital because as Mr. Parker warns in his book, A Radical Enterprise, “through a paradigm of domination and coercion, dominator hierarchies structurally deprive employees of autonomy, which in turn contributes to organizational woes like disengagement, mistrust, and meaninglessness.”

Through autonomy of schedule, radical collaborators decide where and when to work, notably whether to synchronize their schedules to allow real-time collaboration. Through autonomy of allocation, they are not assigned to teams by the management hierarchy, but freely join teams aligned with their own interests and intrinsic motivations. They decide what type of work they are interested in, what kind of career they want to have and what they need from the organization to develop their skills. That’s complemented by the decentralization of power into a dynamic arrangement of self-managed teams.

Can’t work? Note that Haier and Morning Star are not small, trendy Silicon Valley startups, but huge and hugely successful companies.

The network of teams collectively self-manage the organization. The teams take responsibility for hiring, firing and onboarding. They also take responsibility for pay, which is usually transparent, without job evaluations, mostly through automatic increments every year but sometimes through self-managed pay, where transparency seems to keep people honest.

Haier has more than 80,000 employees, devolved into autonomous, self-managed teams called microenterprises. Typically those consist of 10 to 15 people, each with its own purpose, product or service, and profit-and-loss statement, although some microenterprises exist to serve the others.

“They are entirely self-managing. At Haier, there are no middle managers or bureaucracy, no labyrinth of procedures or soul-crushing red tape. Instead, each microenterprise sets their own goals, makes their own plans, and freely relates to each other as they please,” Mr. Parker wrote.

Morning Star has similar practices. But they are unknown to us, because we are in thrall to the top-down, command-and-control approach – which is so wonderful and glorious that one quarter of Americans said in a survey they work for a dictator. Likewise, Career coach Traci Fenton, in Freedom at Work, argues that while we live in a democracy, that concept has failed to enter our work world.

“Freedom is when we live our fullest promise, potential, and purpose without fear. I believe freedom is our divine right,” Ms. Fenton wrote, adding that freedom requires personal accountability, discipline and integrity.

She graded companies on 10 democratic principles such as choice, transparency, decentralization, accountability, fairness and integrity. The companies that best meet those criteria achieved a cumulative revenue growth of 103 per cent from 2010 to 2013, compared to 15 per cent for S&P 500 companies.

Most of us can’t control our organizations, eliminating the dominator hierarchy. But there are still options, and she recommends banishing the notion that fear is a good motivator and instead grounding your mindset in freedom, autonomy, decentralization and trusting your team. Express your power through self-government, granting autonomy where you can. Not anarchy, of course. Responsible delegation, in which people can act on their ideas but also confront the consequences of their lapses.

It need not be some dramatic pronouncement and transformation. Interaction after interaction, notice whether you default to domination, and how through trial and error you can find a better balance of autonomy and control.


  • The Hotshot Rule, promoted by Cinnabon CEO Kat Cole, involves asking yourself: “If I left my job and a hotshot came into my role tomorrow, what is the first thing they would do?” Then do it. It’s probably something you know needs to be done, but have been avoiding.
  • Jason Fried, co-founder of 37signals, maker of Basecamp software, said risk tolerance is a scarce resource in companies. Because founders are often more willing to take risks, he argues it is therefore an obligation of founders still running the show to fill the coffers of risk.
  • When employees at Danske Bank A/S, a Danish financial services company, log on to their remote management meetings, they share an emoji that best expresses how they are feeling. It helps participants get a sense of the others as well as the collective mood. “Emojis allows us to reflect upon and express a broader range of feelings beyond the standard verbal response of “I’m fine,’” product manager Eduardo Morales said.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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