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We Were Slaves in Egypt…Now the Cubicle?

We Were Slaves in Egypt…Now the Cubicle?

Our Eternal Quest for Autonomy

Imagine driving your kids to drop them off for a month of sleep-away camp. Imagine that the energy in the car is a combination of anxiety and excitement, anticipation and celebration. These are the times that normal parents bring up benign conversational topics to pass the time, such as “do you think you’ll be in the same bunk as Sammy again?” or “Remember to stay out of the poison oak on the overnight.” Nothing deep. Just idle chatter.

I am not a normal parent.

Last June, as my husband Michael and I drove our twins Jacob and Sophie to begin their month of adventure and our month of unfettered bliss, I introduced a typical topic of Deborah style-discourse: “So, kids. Would you say that you prefer to work by yourself or with other people?”

The words were barely out of my mouth when Sophie chimed in with an opinion as strong as the scent of socks after a month at sleep-away: “By myself. Ab-so-lut-ly!”

“Why is that?” I asked, surprised by her vehemence.

“Here’s the thing. First of all, I like to work when I want to work and stop when I want to stop. Second, I want to do what I want to do, and I don’t want other people telling me to do stuff. Also, I want to do things the way I want to do them, because I do things really well, and I don’t want anyone else messing up my stuff. And if I have to work with someone, I want to only work with really smart people. People smart like me,” Sophie summed up, not letting the need for either oxygen or humility get in her way.

I must admit that I was stunned. Not by her answer, because I knew that Sophie preferred to work unencumbered by other people’s pace or priority while her twin brother was a natural born collaborator. I was astounded that she had diagnosed her own autonomy needs at age nine, whereas my self-awareness kicked in about 25 years after hers. What can I say? Some of us are late bloomers.

I don’t recall Daniel Pink interviewing Sophie for his book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us.” However, as I re-read it recently, I was struck by the similarities between Sophie’s preference to call her own shots and Pink’s contention that people are far more willing to be held accountable if they have some control over how the work gets done.

In the words of Albert Einstein, “Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.” Of course, most of our organizations (and families) have a varying range of tolerance for freedom, and what’s more, different people have unique preferences for what kind of choices they want or need to be able to make. Pink breaks these needs down into the four “T’s” of autonomy:

– Autonomy over Task: People want to have a say in what they do.

– Autonomy over Time: People want to have a say in when the work gets done.

– Autonomy over Technique: People want to have a say in how they accomplish the work.

– Autonomy over Team: People want to have a say in who they work with.

If you’re someone who hasn’t had a lot of autonomy at work, this list may look like a gourmet dessert menu. Are you salivating over the range of possibilities for more control? Good – that shows a healthy appetite for more self-direction and self-motivation. But just like gorging on the flourless chocolate cake and the key lime pie and the crème brulee, things are going to get uncomfortable really quickly if you try to indulge in too many freedoms at once. Start small: pick ONE “T” that you think would begin to fill you with a greater sense of control over your work AND choose the one that you think your manager would be most likely to let you try out. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to ask for more choice over your tasks, but you might be able to ask for a project deadline of, say, two weeks from now – and decide how and when you get the work completed over those two weeks.

And what if you’re a manager? Does your supervision style align with Freud’s assumption that “most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility”? Even if you don’t believe that, what does your behavior demonstrate? If you’re not sure (but you’re secure enough to find out), download Daniel Pink’s Autonomy Audit, and have your staff complete it. Then discuss the results, and make some real changes.

It’s one thing to tell people that you trust them to make some choices about what they do, by when, with whom and how – it’s another thing entirely to let go of the leash and act as if you really trust your people. Now, I’m not saying that you need to let your team call all of the shots all of the time – that’s abdicating your responsibility as a manager. But I do suggest that you discuss what type of autonomy drives each person on your staff, and give each of them the chance to rise to the occasion. Be willing to be surprised, and then capitalize on having a team that has a greater sense of accountability, responsibility and, yes, even happiness at work.

According to Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, “Freedom is the world of joy.” According to me, “Sleep-away camp is the world of freedom.” Less than four months until Michael and I recapture the joyous world of child-free autonomy over our own lives.

Deborah Grayson Riegel is a certified coach, speaker and trainer who helps individuals, teams and organizations achieve personal and professional success through her high-energy workshops, presentations and one-on-one coaching. Visit her online at or Read previous ‘Success’ columns here.

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