The Importance of Autonomy

Our brains are constantly at work, processing messages and releasing hormones based on often-unconscious cues. These hormones influence our moods and behaviors, and I invite you today to become a little more aware of how your sense of autonomy can trigger them.

At university many years ago, I had to take a semester of philosophy. I thought it was interesting how so many people have been trying to get a grip on life’s questions - while the majority of mankind was busy living. I remember particularly struggling with a paper on free will versus determinism.

William Paley argued that just like a watch has a watchmaker, something as complex as a human being has to have a maker, too. I tried to make a point in my paper that his argument was flawed, citing Darwin and the Big Bang theory, and only got a 2C on it, if I remember correctly. That’s probably like a B- or C+ in the American grading system. I didn’t like philosophy a whole bunch. Anyway, tangent.

The philosophy of autonomy and control

Broadly speaking, determinism argues that our paths are laid out for us, and fate or providence, whatever you want to call it, will have their way. I think this view is dangerous if taken to the extreme, because we could not be held accountable for any of our actions. Imagine life without a judicial system, à la “it’s not my fault I stole that apple, I had to, it’s my karma.”

What’s the point of living if you have no autonomy whatsoever, doesn’t that make you a marionette? (Tweet this.)

Free will, on the other hand, grants that we do have a choice and that we make choices that write our destiny as it happens. I like this idea a lot better, even though neuroscience research now shows that our brain’s neurons actually fire milliseconds before we become aware of our decisions. Which might lead us back to the argument that everything is mechanistic with every action corresponding to a certain reaction. Also, if taken to the extreme and everybody just doing whatever they please because they can, we might end up with the same chaotic society.

The culture of autonomy and control

Last month I briefly wrote about the cultural dimension of Internal and External Locus of Control that looks at which countries are more likely to believe they have control over the environment versus those who believe more in outer circumstances. It would be easy to make a connection to religion versus science (or superstition!), or developed countries versus emerging, I’m just not sure it’s that simplistic.

As I mentioned, my view is “yes, and”: we have some control over some things, but not over everything. In other words, yes, we are still responsible for our actions, and we can never be a complete failure, because some things are simply out of our control. As long as we try our best, the outcome is what it is.

Craig Storti’s “Cross-Cultural Dialogues” shows a nice example of what this cultural difference might sound like:

“Out of Order”

NATASHA: Excuse me, but the elevator is out of order.

SHARON: Really? Whom should we talk to?

NATASHA? Talk to?

SHARON: To report it.

NATASHA: I have no idea.

SHARON: Oh, I’m sorry; I thought you lived here too.

NATASHA: But I do.

When things break down in the USA (Internal culture), people generally do something to fix them. Taking care of business. OK, so they might grumble and complain a bit first, but then there’s a definite call to action.

In Russia (External culture), people may be more laid back: sometimes things break, and there’s no reason to get excited or try and do something about it. As Storti describes it,

This resignation or fatalism, which should not be confused with passivity, probably derives in part from the physical hardships of life in Russia; there wasn’t much you could do about the wind from the steppes or acute shortages of vegetables. Your goal was to endure.

The personality of autonomy and control

In MBTI® language, if you have an I and/or a T in your Type code for Introversion and Thinking, you probably value autonomy and independence for their own sake. Not just because it’s a nice-to-have, no: it’s probably a psychological need for you, which when it doesn’t get met causes all sorts of defensive behaviors. For example, if your job does not allow you the space or autonomy you crave, you will create experiences in your private life that fill those needs by finding hobbies that accommodate them.  

Introversion, Thinking, or not – as Daniel Pink found in his book, “Drive – The surprising truth about what motivates us”, having autonomy, learning, and making a positive impact is key:

The secret to high performance and satisfaction—at work, at school, and at home—is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.

Our brain releases the stress hormone cortisol when we feel we have no control over a situation, negatively impacting our health and our ability to find alternative solutions. So there’s a catch 22 kind of deal: the more at mercy you feel, the less you’ll be able to come up with ideas on what to do.

Likewise, when you feel like you have at least a modicum of control and autonomy over your situation, the calmer you’ll be.

How can you apply this awareness to your life?

  • Expat spouses, when your partner comes home and tells you to move to Russia – know that you have a say. It’s your life, too, and you can choose to stay back and have a long-distance relationship for the duration of the project.
  • When you workload is spinning out of control and you’re spending more and more hours at work, know that you can set boundaries. Look at your calendar and with a firm voice say, “thank you, but this won’t work for me” the next time your colleague tries to pawn off his reports analysis at you.
  • If you’re working with people who react differently to questions of control and autonomy, take a moment to reflect if they may be coming from a different cultural background or have different personality type preferences than you.
  • As an employee, ask your manager what the goal is and – if that’s what you’re comfortable with - whether you have the freedom to arrive at it in the manner you think is best. If you’d like more direction, ask for more direction, to help with your level of certainty (see yesterday’s post).
  • As a leader, unless you’re in the military, try not to give strict orders. Your team will be much more productive if you stop micro managing and take a more coaching-style approach. Let people figure things out freely, they’ll be much more motivated and creative for it – again, taking cultural and personality type variances into consideration.

What other ways can you think of?


Image by Marina del Castel, Flickr, Creative Commons License.