The Flight from Autonomy

Years ago I read a book by the psychologist Erich Fromm entitled Escape from Freedom, which was first published in 1941.  As I recall, the book was in part about the appeal of totalitarianism to many people in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century and more generally about the appeal of leaders and systems that promise explicitly or implicitly to do our thinking for us.  Americans have usually regarded themselves as immune to such appeals, but just because most of us look in the mirror and don’t see that image doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.  When a plurality of Germans voted for Hitler as their Chancellor in 1933, Germany had one of the most highly educated populations in the world and was one of the world’s most technically advanced nations. The Germans may have a greater love of order than Americans have ever had and the Germany of the early 30’s was in far worse shape than the United States is now, but no nation or people can say with complete confidence: “it (authoritarian rule) will never happen here.”  And in case you haven’t noticed, around the world, from China and Russia to the largely failed “Arab Spring,” democracy, or even the superficial adherence to the rituals  of deomocracy, has not had a good run the last few years.  The sad reality is that when people are insecure  about their economic future, when they fear for their physical or psychological safety,  when they feel the secure ground  of the world they know becoming shaky, they often react by choosing to follow an authoritarian leader.

The same forces may be at play in the world of work.  When people are insecure in their jobs, when they are more afraid of the negative repercussions of failure than they are enticed by the possible rewards of the success of a new venture,  and when they have learned to be distrustful of those higher up in the organization’s food chain, they will often surrender whatever work autonomy they have in the interest of playing it safe.  They are not usually able to go out and elect a new boss who will somehow magically solve their problems, but they will strive not to become a problem for the bosses they have–even when they don’t trust or like these bosses.  Maybe particularly when they don’t trust of like them. They become disengaged or as one British observer of the world of work describes them:  “the living dead”  (David Bolchover, The Living Dead, 2005).  Of course, there can be other causes for this condition, including a job where regardless of what you do, you will never be punished for failure or even never showing up.  (There used to be jobs like that in Chicago and Albany, NY.  but we have been assured by those in authority that they no longer exist.)  I can’t prove it, but I think more disengagement from work and more of the flight from autonomy spring from fear than from the complacency of knowing you not only sit in the catbird seat, but own it.  A little anxiety may be a good thing, but not knowing if the job you have will even exist six months from now does not encourage innovative thinking.

The surveys I have seen indicate that far more people are more or less satisfied with their work than meaningfully engaged in it. Other surveys show that most employees are not engaged with or are even seriously disengaged from their jobs (see, “Majority of U.S. Employees Not Engaged Despite Gains in 2014”).  Supervisors often blame their employees for this sorry situation, but the reality is that in most cases supervisors need to look in the mirror and see not the supervisor  they want to see, but the supervisor they are. If their employees flee from making decisions, the problem is likely not the inherent weaknesses of their own employees, but those employees modeling their own behavior on what they observe in the behavior of their own supervisors.  If the supervisors flee autonomy and its attendant risks,  they cannot expect any different behavior down the line.  Of course, the supervisors pick up this same behavior from their own supervisors and so forth right on up to the top of a not very effective organization.

This last point leads to two questions: First, how do supervisors encourage autonomous behavior in their subordinates?  Second, how does an employee claim autonomy in a work environment that does not encourage it?  (Aside of course from telling the boss to shove it,  flipping over his or desk, and riding off into the sunset on your motorcycle.) I will take up these questions up in blogs to follow. Stay tuned.


The Flight from Autonomy

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