The Genie, the Bottle, and What’s Next

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Things are sure different than they were a month or so ago. Millions of people are now working from home. Behind closed doors, they’re doing things they never did before.

Instead of going to meetings in glass-walled conference rooms, they’re videoconferencing. Some of them wear formal business shirts and tops and something different, occasionally nothing, down below. They’re wearing what’s comfortable and deciding whether to take a nap. They’re decorating their workplace any old way they choose.

They’re also making decisions about work. They’re deciding when to work. They’re deciding how to do their job. There’s no boss slipping by and peering over their shoulder at their computer screen.

This coronavirus stay-at-home time will expose many ineffective bosses. They’re the ones who are always looking at exactly what the people who worked for them were doing. That’s not effective. An older and old-school manager summed it up for me a few years ago. “If you have to look over someone’s shoulder to tell if they’re working, at least one of you doesn’t know what they’re doing.”

There’s something else going on. It’s powerful and invisible. People are getting a taste of autonomy for the first time.

Autonomy Is the Genie and It’s Out of the Bottle

Years ago, I researched top-performing supervisors and what they did differently. I found the great ones give team members as much control as possible over their work life.

For years, I asked training participants to describe a time when it was great to come to work. Then they described the characteristics of such a time. Having autonomy was always part of the mix. People crave being able to decide what to do and when.

Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have been researching motivation for almost half a century. They found autonomy contributes to improved performance, wellness, and engagement.

You don’t have to listen to any of us. Watch any small child who’s learned to feed themselves. Once that happens, they don’t want you to feed them. They want to do it themselves. They want to do it themselves even when it’s harder for them or they get less food. One of my grandsons would slap your hand away if you tried to feed him. He was going to do it himself.

Work-From-Home Is a Great Natural Experiment

Right now, we’re conducting a giant natural experiment. Folks are staying home so they’re not exposed to the coronavirus. But by working from home, they’re exposed to the genie of autonomy.

What Happens When They All Go Back to Work?

When the United States mobilized for World War I, thousands of young men left the backwoods and farms to join the Army. They went to France to fight. They saw things they would never have seen otherwise, like Paris. In 1919, there was a hit song titled “How You Going to Keep ‘Em Down on The Farm After They’ve Seen Paree?”

In other words, how likely are those young men to return to the life they knew after they experienced things they barely knew existed? Think about it. Millions of men and women today are experiencing a little taste of freedom, a bit of autonomy.

The genie of autonomy is out of the bottle. Genies are noted for refusing to return to the bottle.

I’m betting on the power of autonomy to create problems for controlling bosses. I’m betting a taste of autonomy will inspire people to overturn the “We’ve always done it that way, and besides, we know more than you do” leadership style.

The best leaders have always unleashed power by encouraging people to make the important choices about their work life. Now, people will expect it.

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