Self-determination at work

There’s a common saying that entrepreneurs should work on the business, and not in the business. It makes sense to stay above the day-to-day details in order to help steer the business. Perhaps it’s time to think of all businesses as networks of entrepreneurs. Everyone should be working on the business. As Peter Drucker said, “Nothing is less productive than doing what should not be done at all”. Being efficient at something that is not effective is a waste of time, and a cause for workers to mentally disconnect from the company. Efficiency for its own sake makes job a four-letter word.

How do you get an entrepreneurial mindset in a hierarchical, just-follow-the-rules, organization? Start by looking at what motivates people. Dan Pink popularized three key motivators in his book, Drive (2011): Autonomy, Mastery, Sense of Purpose. The basis of this is self-determination theory, which I think provides a much better understanding of motivation at work, and from which the following image comes.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Not only does an entrepreneurial mindset require autonomy and competence, but relatedness as well, which is a key factor missing from Pink’s book. People have to feel they are part of something. Relatedness “is the universal want to interact, be connected to, and experience caring for others”. This is what the military, organized religions, and many NGO’s have clearly understood for years.

Working out loud is one way to foster relatedness, by seeing what is happening throughout the enterprise and being connected to the work flow. Autonomy can be promoted by encouraging experimentation from which new insights can be gained and shared. Increased confidence results from having the freedom to try things out within a sharing and caring work environment.

This foundation of self-determination aligns with the general structure of Teal Organizations, as described in Frédéric Laloux’s book, Reinventing Organizations. The book covers in detail how Teal organizations, based on self-managing teams, can work. Examples include AES, Buurtzorg, FAVI, Morning Star, RHD, Sun Hydraulics, and Patagonia. These companies have changed the traditional industrial era structure of work and enabled self-determination on an organizational level.

But the bottom line is autonomous workers relating to others in an organizational space protected by the leadership. This is the future of work when facing rapid technological change, shifting demographics, resource and climate crises, and economic volatility. The answer is to simplify our work structures, not make things more complicated. Entrepreneurship is economic self-determination. What motivates entrepreneurs can also drive a company.

7 Responses to “Self-determination at work”

  1. Monique

    This year I experienced what I can only describe as fear of change, apathy or perhaps sheer threat by the leadership of the organisation I was working for. In fact, each time I reached out to executives at customers and got projects going, it was met with disbelief? Followed by being called names such as ‘Minotaur’.
    A most bizarre experience for me who is naturally collaborative and wanting to solve challenges creatively. Perhaps old school ‘yes sir’, ‘no sir’ leadership is too ingrained to change.

  2. Harold Jarche

    Being called a Minotaur is a new one for me! Sounds like it’s time to find another place to work.


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