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Smith Business Insight Podcast | Series 3 . Episode 3 Brave New Workplace


Smith Business Insight Podcast

Members of the organizational elite expect to have a major say in how and where they do their own jobs. What will it take for them to get over their need to micromanage others?


Workers can forgive a lot of management sins as long as they have some control over the work they do and where they do it. Yet leaders either have a blind spot or fear giving their employees greater autonomy. In this podcast episode, guest Julian Barling, author of Brave New Workplace, discusses how to calibrate the level of autonomy depending on the worker, the importance of combining autonomy with training and support, and the rising importance of “locational autonomy.” He is joined in conversation by host Alan Morantz. 


[Music playing] 

Alan Morantz: Micromanagement. Mandates from above. Control. For the poor souls experiencing little autonomy at work, these forms of heavy-handed management can suck the life out of a job. But when employees have the autonomy to set their own schedules, decide where they work, or complete tasks the way they want, higher performance and deeper job satisfaction soon follow. 

This shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, studies show that for people from a variety of cultural backgrounds, gaining autonomy is more important than gaining power. 

Welcome to episode three of Brave New Workplace. I’m your host, Alan Morantz, senior editor of Smith Business Insight, and today we’re talking about employee autonomy with Dr. Julian Barling. Dr. Barling is author of the newly published book, Brave New Workplace. He is a Distinguished University Professor and Borden Chair of Leadership at Smith School of Business and has some 40 years of management research to draw from. 

In this episode, we talk about the rise of locational autonomy and how bosses can get over their fear of giving up control. 

[Music playing] 

1:23: AM: You make the point in your book that what people do during the workday and where they do it is less important than whether they have some control over the work they do and where they perform it. Is having a measure of autonomy that important for performance? 

Julian Barling: I would have to say yes, and that is going to be based on decades of research and just observing behaviour, management and so forth in organizations. 

To introduce this, if I can take us all the way back to the 1980s, there was a marvelous developmental psychologist by the name of Urie Bronfenbrenner. And he was working in the area, researching in the area of what they referred to back then as employed mothers. And the big debate, the big social debate was should mothers be employed or not? And Bronfenbrenner said that, in a sense, the question of whether they should be employed or not was really a question about their daily address in terms of their effects on their children. And we should be worried more about their daily experience. So whether they were employed at home or whether they were at work, did they have a good experience or a bad experience? 

So, fast forward four decades, and I think we now have an additional consideration. It’s no longer simply where you work, but I think it is the amount of control you have over where you work. Post-covid, and I’m not sure I know what post-covid means today, but post-covid I think we are seeing a potentially huge issue that could result in major conflict across organizations. 

There’s a collective agreement looming large for federal civil servants in Canada. And one of the big issues is not just in a sense whether you work from home, but who decides whether you work from home. Who decides how much you work from home? So we’ve gone from Urie Bronfenbrenner saying, in a sense, it’s not whether you work from home, it’s how happy you are with your experience wherever you work. Four decades later, we are very much living the issue of who gets to decide whether you work from home or not. 

Some additional considerations. At the start of the pandemic, many organizations were, I think, overly optimistic that the world of work had changed so remarkably that people would never return to the office. So they gave the people the right to choose whether to work from home or not. Now what we are seeing is organizations trying to force people to come back to the office. And we are seeing across organizations, industries, countries and so forth, a very negative reaction. 

And I think this provides another wonderful lesson about the importance of autonomy, and that is, once you've given people the right to a degree of autonomy, be aware of the difficulty of trying to take it back. Giving it creates its own difficulties. Trying to take it back is even more difficult. 

One of the best ways of understanding the importance of autonomy is when people have very little. And the example perhaps is micromanagement. When people are micromanaged, irrespective of the work they do, when people are micromanaged, the question is, what message does this send to them? And I think it tells them, when they try and make sense of being micromanaged, it tells them that we lack the trust in their skills and we lack trust in their integrity. And I don’t know of any situation in which people would be performing at their best when they feel they’re distrusted in that way. 

On the other hand, and this gets back to the importance of autonomy, what are we telling people when we grant them some level of autonomy? I think it tells them that we trust their discretion. We trust their integrity. We’re telling them that we think they have skills that don’t need to be monitored. So for me, this raises this enormous question, that is, what are the benefits of granting people some level or form of autonomy? And the good news is that the research is very positive. 

4:37: AM: So just to be clear, we're not talking about total control over their work, right? 

JB: Absolutely. We are definitely not talking about total control over their work. In all my experience, and from just the research, that’s not what we’re talking about. Employees don’t seem to be asking for total control over their work. And if you look at the research, we see the benefits on performance, on well-being, on attitudes, at points well before people get to total control. 

And perhaps a little later we can even talk about whether total control can backfire. It’s not binary. It’s not sort of control versus chaos or whatever. Employees overwhelmingly realize that management has to establish what needs to get done, by when, what constitutes acceptable performance and so forth. But if we believe in the old adage that no one knows the job as well as the person who does it, why would we then insist on telling employees how to do it? 

Employees want some degree of control over how they do their jobs. They want to be able to choose how they get their job accomplished, at the standards needed by the organization, in the timelines needed by the organization. So what we are truly talking about are small changes to what exists currently in their job and are relevant to them. And right now, in our post-covid environment, to a large extent, location and timing are very important. 

6:14: AM: So I’m just going pick up on what you just invited me to ask, which is, is it possible to have too much autonomy? Is too much autonomy not a good thing? 

JB: Yes, too much autonomy can turn bad. We know this because in the academic literature, too much autonomy even has its own acronym; it would be TMGT, which would be “too much of a good thing.” And too much of a good thing can turn bad. But the question is, what is too much? And there certainly is no scale or assessment instrument or whatever that would say at this point, it’s too much. Instead, it all depends. 

People will be able to accept and use more autonomy if they’ve had the training necessary. In fact, I would say that granting people autonomy without the training needed may be the most dangerous thing that you can do in the organization. 

So what we need to do is we need to realize that people will be more motivated, their performance will go up, well-being attitudes, when they have more autonomy. But it’s autonomy that is accompanied by the appropriate training, the resources. So we must ensure that they have the resources at their disposal to, to use that autonomy. And, really importantly, they need the ability to just say no. So can they say no and be safe from any negative repercussions? And that will tell us whether we’re offering autonomy or forcing autonomy. 

But employees are not asking for total autonomy. There is no research evidence at all to suggest that they need or want total autonomy. We’re talking about small changes that can make a huge difference in which people experience their work. 

8:17: AM: So what happens, though, when there is more autonomy granted without the training or without the support? What could happen to that individual? 

JB: So my fear is what would happen is that you would not get the productivity benefits that you might assume. And then what we will do is blame the employee. What might happen is if they have the autonomy but not the training, and people are in safety sensitive work, we may see unfortunate safety incidents and people will get blamed. 

One of the hallmarks of the workplace model that we offer in Brave New Workplace suggests that all these seven elements are interrelated. They’re not isolated best practices. Back in the nineties, academics were offering the notion of best practices. We’ve moved away from that to appreciate that what we have are interdependent management ideas. 

9:28: AM: Now, I imagine some people don’t want more autonomy, others want but are in jobs that are by nature highly controlled. If you’re the supervisor, you’re the leader, how does the supervisor know when there’s too little or too much autonomy and decide on how autonomy should be given and to whom? 

JB: So I think that, in general, we should be guided by, let’s call it, best practices. And the best practices overall people are likely to benefit in terms of productivity, well-being, and so forth from autonomy, rather than be guided by the notion that well, overall, perhaps people are best suited not to have autonomy. 

Having said that, yes, of course there are important individual differences in the extent to which people want autonomy. And it might seem almost bizarre or too simple to say this, but perhaps the best way we can ascertain this is by asking people, by starting the discussion. Ironically, just doing this is a form of granting autonomy. Just asking people allows them to tell you how they think their work can be improved or not improved. Typically, we are more reactive. We wait for people to come to us. This may be a way of opening the discussion and by granting autonomy, just by doing so. 

I think what we should be really careful about not doing is making assumptions based on gender or age, or worse still, what I’ll call generational membership as to who might want to autonomy. There are so many stereotypes that members of this generation or other generation that want to autonomy. There is no backup for that in the research whatsoever. Doesn’t matter who you are, people want to be respected and trusted and treated decently. I think the worst thing we could do is, is make assumptions about groups of people. 

And just remember that for it to work, we need to combine autonomy with training and support, and make sure that the intent is not done to take advantage of employees. That we are not doing this to offload responsibility for management. We are doing this to provide opportunities for employees. 

12:10: AM: And we often use the term millennials as shorthand just to describe a whole group of people that have varying needs and perspectives. So it’s probably lazy to use those sort of shorthand. 

JB: I think it’s lazy in the respect that it enables, allows, even encourages us to think that, you know, there may be. . . just take random dates, 1999 to 2000. So if you're born in '99, this tells us that you will think very differently, respond very differently to somebody born in 2000. Why would that be the case? 

I can see why it’s an attractive way of thinking. The world is really, really complex. Management, leadership is a very complicated exercise and trying to simplify it by thinking in categories is, in a sense, on the one hand, attractive, but on the other hand can be really dangerous. 

13:18: AM: I understand the story around autonomy is a little different for customer-facing workers. I’m talking about the people who have to perform some amount of emotional labour, surface-level acting like faking a good mood. And to me, that's about as anti-autonomy as you can get. 

JB: Yes. And heaven helped the organization in which customer focusing workers don’t surface act or don’t display good moods. 

So I guess one implication in all of this is how can we help people in those customer facing jobs do what the organization needs? Can we support them emotionally, psychologically and so forth? And one way of finding out how we could do this that ironically will be really useful is by asking them what they need. 

These people are typically controlled in other ways. You’re stuck to your desk, you're stuck to certain hours, you're literally stuck to a certain script, all of which deny you autonomy in your work. The good news is that it’s an opportunity where small amounts of autonomy will probably make a huge difference to the overall experience of their job. I think people who assume that kind of work know they go in knowing, that autonomy will be limited. And I think that means that offering small aspects of autonomy by itself may make huge differences. 

AM: Even for airline agents. 

JB: Yes, in fact airline agents have a great degree of autonomy. Airline agents are the people who decide whether you get an upgrade or not. So the lesson there is that we should appreciate the people may have more autonomy than meets the eye. Organizations should realize that by giving people the opportunity to make these expanded decisions may make their works more psychologically safe. 

15:39: AM: It’s funny, executives or supervisors generally highly value autonomy for themselves, and often that’s an indication whether or not they accept a job in the first place. But it often doesn’t occur to them that it’s also highly valuable for the people they lead. Is it just a blind spot or do they fear giving up control? And if it’s fear, how can you help them get over it? 

JB: I think this is one of the cases where it’s all of the above. It’s really nuanced and it’s a fascinating psychological phenomenon. 

Part of it is certainly a deep-rooted fear of losing control over something that is so valuable to you. So, because it means so much to you, you struggle to maintain control over it. You want people to do well and the consequences of their failing are more than you can bear. So you overcontrol ironically, reducing the likelihood that they’re going to be successful. 

This looms really large in the so-called post-pandemic era. We fear allowing people to work from home. So what we do is we try and think, how can we monitor and control them? And all the time, we introduce more ways of monitoring them, especially when they’re invisible ways.  We may feel better ourselves, but there are costs on the other side. 

So we need to help managers appreciate that when employees feel trusted and respected and are granted some form of control over their own work, they will want to help the organizations thrive. And this includes, right now, working from home and monitoring people without their knowledge is simply going to convey a lack of trust and a lack of respect. It’s amazing how quickly we forget what we wanted when we were in their shoes. 

AM: They just can’t resist. 

JB: They just can’t resist. 

If I can just mention a study that came from the area of educational psychology, and I think it’s one of the aspects that leads people to overcontrol others. It’s when managers feel that they’re going to be judged by their employees’ performance. So there was a particular study and the subtitle of this article was actually about moms and their kids, “When my child is my report card.” And I think that part of the problem is when leaders feel that their employees are their report card. It’s very difficult to give up control. 

And I think that if we could expand leadership development, which we covered in a different discussion, we need to help people understand that actually giving up control may be the best thing you can do for your leadership. And it’s not giving up total control. It’s not about just letting loose. Phil Jackson, in his book Eleven Rings, Phil Jackson, the basketball coach, says that the best of leadership is about mastering the art of letting go. It’s not letting go completely. It’s knowing how much and when and with whom. That’s what we need to help people with. 

19:06: AM: What about 360-degree type feedback loops? Would they be useful in this regard just to help or remind leaders that perhaps a little less control might lead to better leadership performance? 

JB: The literature on feedback in general and 360-degree feedback is going to be less optimistic than perhaps we want it to be. I’m not sure that just telling people that they’re perhaps overcontrolling others is going to be enough just to help them change in the future. 

I think that what we know is we’re going to get far more likelihood of change if we combine that perhaps with executive coaching. So simply offering more feedback by itself may even have harmful effects as people worry that they’re doing something wrong but don’t have the resources and the support to change as they move forward. So I think that going back to some research we discussed in the leadership discussion, by Christina Lacerenza, we need multiple sources. We need not just feedback, we need coaching. I think the chances go up that we might get some of the change we need. 

20:28: AM: It’s well established that job autonomy is of far greater importance within individualistic cultures that prioritize individual needs — and those are types of cultures we know all about here in North America — rather than within collective cultures, in Asia for example. So what does this mean for managers of multicultural teams — and that’s certainly a feature in just about all Canadian organizations — in terms of job autonomy? 

JB: Yes. That is really a very significant day-to-day challenge for, I’m going to say most, managers in North America and probably elsewhere. The research does indeed show differences in the extent to which employees want autonomy if we compare employees in individualistic versus collectivist cultures. 

But we need to be very careful in how we interpret them. I would interpret those findings somewhat cautiously. Those findings do not convey huge differences in the extent to which people seek autonomy. Those findings do not suggest, for example, that people in collectivist cultures do not want autonomy. They want it, maybe perhaps a little bit less, but also it’s an average. It’s not that all employees in those cultures want it less. 

So what does this mean for managers of multicultural work teams? I think it means we need to be really nuanced in how we offer autonomy. We need to speak to people, we need to appreciate that some people are going to want autonomy more than others, and we need to be flexible and sensitive to those needs. And under those conditions, I think we are going to get the best out of autonomy as a management strategy. 

22:36: AM: You wrote about locational autonomy in your book, referencing the need for employees to have some say on where they work. The fact that some workers are at home and others at the office imposes differential levels of autonomy, does it not? 

JB: Yes, indeed it does. Moreover, it also has the potential for creating huge levels of conflict. 

So much of work can simply not be done at home. And I think what we learned at the start of the pandemic and through the pandemic is we’ve created a new class of privileged worker. And these are the people who managed to do their work from home at a time when that granted them greater protection from a deadly virus. So during the pandemic when it was unhealthy to be at work, people who had the right to be at home were truly privileged and we created a new class of privileged high-status employees. 

We need to think about issues such as this because with autonomy, they’re not going away. When some people are going to have greater access to choosing where they work from, we should be wary about the people who do not have that right. 

Locational autonomy is not an all or none. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that there's a group of people who work from home all the time. The data don’t bear that out, whether it’s Stats Canada data or Bureau of Labor Statistics in the U.S. I think a good average is it’s about 35 per cent of employees who are able to work from home. The rest are essential workers and so forth. In the UK, they have a new acronym to describe this. It’s not even all week that people work from home. And the acronym is TWAT, and it’s Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. So do you have the right to choose when to work from home and when to not work from home? 

So it’s not just in a sense where you work, but probably what we have now is a new phenomenon. We have more and more people working from work who wish they could work from home. And more and more people who are now working from home who wish they could work from work. And what’s lacking is not just the place. What’s lacking in that is the autonomy about where you are able to work from. And that's what we are facing right now. 

AM: I have a new acronym. It’s TAFN. That’s all for now. Thanks for the conversation, Julian. 

JB: TAFNF. That’s all for now, folks. 

[Music playing] 

AM: For more on Julian Barling’s vision of productive, healthy and safe workplaces, pick up a copy of his book, Brave New Workplace, from your favourite bookseller. Brave New Workplace is published by Oxford University Press. 

Thank you to podcast producer Meredith Dault and to Bill Cassidy for editing support. And finally, for practical evidence-based insights on the organizational world and business and finance in general, check out Smith Business Insight at