Are we losing our autonomy at work?

The Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty thinks we are. While we may have more power as consumers, he says, at work we are more regimented and controlled than ever before.

In shops, the layout is dictated by head office, while the produce arrives pre-sliced and pre-packaged. In the classroom, the teacher must work to the national curriculum. At the bank, branch and call-centre staff work to scripts and decisions about mortgages and loans are made centrally.

He continues:

The forces that have increased our powers of consumption are often those that are reducing our sovereignty as workers. The power and cheapness of information technology makes it easier for managers to monitor their business’s performance and also to strip out the idiosyncratic bits of an operation.

And, quoting the work of Philip Brown, he concludes:

After years of research, Brown and his colleagues talk about a future workforce in which only 10-15% will have “permission to think”. The rest of us will merely carry out their decisions; what the academics call “digital Taylorism”, in which graduates will end up on the white-collar equivalent of a factory line. Think call centres rather than groovy offices and you’re most of the way there.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, was it?

Business textbooks have been banging on about employee autonomy, empowerment and engagement for at least the past quarter century. Employees with more autonomy will feel more empowered, will therefore be more engaged and will thus be more productive. Furthermore, they won’t need as much supervision so your management costs will go down. OK, I’m simplifying for the sake of brevity, but most of the arguments for worker autonomy run along those lines.

Workers are happier, their productivity goes up and management costs go down. You’d think everybody would have jumped at it by now wouldn’t you?

A whole industry has grown up around employee empowerment and related areas like employee engagement. But, though a lot has been written about it, there is precious little research showing whether employees have more autonomy now than they did a couple of decades ago, or, indeed, whether they even feel more empowered.

Autonomy and empowerment are subjective. It may be that people feel less empowered precisely because their expectations of empowerment have been raised. Constantly being told that you live in a free and classless society, unencumbered by status and social hierarchy, may make you that bit more resentful when you find that your workplace still resembles a feudal barony.

Some of the jobs which used to be regimented, like those on factory production lines, have been automated. We don’t have the masses of industrial workers that we once had. At the same time, though, white-collar production lines, such as call centres and financial processing factories, have appeared. So, while society might feel less rigid than that the 1970s, there is little evidence that the levels of control in the workplace have changed.  You and your boss might call each other by your first names but he is still very much your boss.

Observation of the extensive discussions about command and control vs worker autonomy have led me to come up with my own version of Godwin’s Law. Rick’s Law states: “As an online discussion on employee empowerment grows longer, the probability of someone mentioning SEMCO approaches 1.”

What strikes me about SEMCO, though, is that there seem to be more articles, radio programmes and case studies about it than companies that have actually emulated it. Everybody seems to agree that SEMCO’s form of industrial democracy is a wonderful inspiration but few seem to have followed its example.

Perhaps this is because command and control works, at least up to a point. It’s safe and everybody knows where they stand. Sometimes, employees push back against empowerment just as much as their managers do. Fear that they will be held responsible if things go wrong and a sense that ‘We’re not paid enough to make decisions like these’ contribute to the backlash. For a number of reasons, despite all the exhortations of management academics, employers have proved reluctant to dump the comfort blankets of hierarchy and control.

Are we becoming ever less autonomous at work as Aditya Chakrabortty says? It’s a difficult call. My sense is that we seem to have as many, though perhaps different, restrictions as we had a couple of decades ago. I think he is probably right when he says that autonomy and permission to think are the preserve of some 10-15%. I’m less convinced, though, that this figure is much different from what it would have been in the 1980s. Despite all that has been written over the last two decades about empowering workers, there isn’t a great deal of evidence that much has changed.

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13 Responses to Are we losing our autonomy at work?

  1. And this why autonomous, free thinking and creative individuals should be self-employed. Hierarchies or Markets? Markets!!!

  2. Pingback: Are we losing our autonomy at work? - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  3. Sukh Pabial says:

    Your end paragraph there is the one piece which I get stuck on too. It feels right to say that empowering your staff and engaging them makes them more productive, but as you say, there’s just very little broad scale proof. We don’t even know if performance management systems actually benefit the workforce, yet we doggedly roll them out – the command and control you refer to.

  4. Productivity issues aside, if granting employees more autonomy makes their work life more pleasant isn’t this enough reason to grant it?

  5. GrumpyLecturer says:

    Hi Rick can I ask a favour! I do not possess n am I clever enough to run a ‘Blogg’ but having read the piece above I was wondering if you could post the below and see what reaction you get from your readers. It is a question I have set for next semester and an area I have been researching for quite a number of years but as it is based on a purely theoretical argument you can understand why people run in the opposite direction.

    If you could help in anyway I would really appriciate it. Would Mike be interested do you think?

    “The findings and ultimate conclusions of the Human Relations Movement ‘Needs Theorists’ has been utilised over the years to create an ‘alternative reality of work’ one which espouses a more caring and humanistic management approach. However, it can be argued that this approach masks a deeper Taylorist ‘Scientific Management’ approach without the high wages. Critically discuss this notion.”

    By the way Happy New Year!

    Grumpy

  6. @Grumpy

    It is not obvious to me that overlap exists between Taylorism and the Human Relations school. Taylorism breaks down tasks into repetitive elements and remunerates according to efficiency. It favours piece work (I would have thought).

    The Human Relations schools are holistic in their approach and recognise that workers are humans. I would hence expect more autonomy to be given to workers and perhaps there would be more teamwork and self organisation.. The Hawrhorne experiments showed that employee productivity increased when management showed an interest. The Hawrhorne experiments showed that extrinsic rewards may not be necessary to promote productivity. The workplace is seen as a social system whereas Taylorism views it as a technical system.

    I am not an expert in this field but these are my first thoughts. I would not like to be set this question in an exam because although I may be able to adequately describe the two approaches, I am not sure that I would be able to critically discuss the proposition.

  7. needs2cash says:

    Businesses respond to customer demands. Consumerism leads to brand management. Then brand management deskills front-line work. Shopping as entertainment and paying several pounds for a cup of coffee started this trend a few decades ago so I see no surprises here.

    We must invest in our learning to avoid becoming a nation that is unable to add value by exercising our brain power at work. Let us use our enhanced brain power to find work we enjoy in sustainable businesses so we can look after our families, our communities and ourselves.

    Yes, we may have to use our increased brain-power to start and re-start our own businesses. Never give up by returning to work for a boss who treats you as a machine.

    Let us also add value by thinking so we stop shopping for joy. Let us add lasting value and buy only what we need and the earth can sustain.

    Or is it just easier to go with the flow, shop ’til we drop and become a bleating victim?

  8. Pingback: Who’s in control? « Thinking About Learning

  9. Gareth Jones says:

    One for me indeed sir! Have you not realised that the mere mention of the word S**co can have you hauled up before the Supreme Court of corporate hierarchical averageness, whose senior judges include messers Morrison and Ball?! ;)

    Your observation is indeed correct – command and control does work. It delivers good. Good enough. But as Jim Collins would say, good is the enemy of great. (that’s a life sentence handed down to me for mentioning Jim Collins in the same blog comment as S**mco!)

    But who is to argue when ‘good’ or ‘works’ keeps it all cosy, safe and delivers the kind of pension pots that until recently only rock stars could dream of? Certainly not me. Not until we break out of our lame and retarded model and actually start embracing some of the approaches that “the aforementioned company that can not be named” indulge in.

    Oh! Whats this?! Hang on a minute! We are determining that the command and control model works when the economy is on its arse, globally? Success it seems never came with such an appalling set of KPI’s.

    And just a point – hate to pull Sukh up but just wanted to point out that there is evidence that empowerment and autonomy – in other words increased engagement – does deliver improved performance. I believe your comment was referring to the lack of evidence that we are, or not, as the case may be, any more empowed now than 30 years ago. ;)

    • Sukh Pabial says:

      Happy to be corrected, Gareth, it’s probably my lack of searching for the evidence which fuelled that response in part. Be good to know where to find it though?

  10. I think that this is a good analysis, and brings to mind a couple of things about what in the world of criminology is known as “victim precipitation”: the extent to which people bring command and control upon because of deep cultural expectations about what management is (see my slightly tongue-in-cheek theory on this here http://mmitii.wordpress.com/2010/07/13/the-my-manager-is-a-er-theory/); and secondly the extent to which even those who have the authority to think today have comparatively less time to do so as our increasingly OCD workplaces force more people into more firefighting activity.

    From a rough rule of Pareto (does that also get me a sentence?), most managers in my experience spend 80% off their

    • ….(of their) time doing firefighting work, reacting to the world around them. That means that we might even be looking at some nightmare where only 10% of people are able to spend 10% of their time thinking about what they are doing.,,,

  11. Pingback: Video: The Caring Capitalist – Brazil (Ricardo Semler’s innovative way to run a company) | GhettoRacer & His Bizarre and Twisted Reality

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