Learn to work independently, son

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I’ve seen studies (and books) about how important the idea of being able to work independently is. Mostly I’d buy that for a $1 or more. Consider: the opposite of a chance to work independently would be micromanagement, and most people hate that. You see stuff like working remotely and/or flexible work arrangements rising in popularity. The standard narrative on these deals is always around child care. That’s very true and it’s definitely part of the narrative — child care is expensive, so being able to work from home once in a while is nice — but I’d say the bigger part of the narrative is around the ability to work independently.

When you have an office job, your time is never really your own. You can always be grabbed for some meeting or tossed, devoid of context, into some new project. It’s a time sink and you almost never have a real chance to work independently. Email this, conference call that, conference room meeting now. (There are ways around this, but many don’t use them.)

Now start thinking about what people want out of a job. Off the top of my head, I’d say:

  • A nice salary
  • Boss who shows respect
  • Opportunities for advancement
  • Ability to work on some cool stuff
  • Purpose/mission that seems right

I read about stuff like this all the time (jobs, careers, management, etc.) and I can tell you, without inundating you with links, that these things come up in research all the time too. Look, we can’t ignore salary in the first world. A bunch of “thought leaders” like to put “purpose” near the top. Purpose is important and ideally it exists in your job, but purpose isn’t going to buy you a burrito. We want to make what we believe we should make, although admittedly very few people know what their salary even represents.

It’s hard to strip the psychology from work. We want to be seen as relevant, competent, and “on top” of stuff. That requires a certain degree of autonomy, or this chance to work independently. If our manager is always on us about everything, those feelings of “relevance” and “competence” will begin to decline. Our work will be less good. You’ve all had the micro-manager and, yes, your work tends to eventually suck. It’s a giant circle of annoyance.

There’s now a new money quote on the necessity of being able to work independently, too.

Wharton and the chance to work independently

New article on Wharton’s website about “how disorder can contribute to success.” A lot of it is about messy desks. (It’s actually an interview with Tim Harford, all told.) If you get down near the bottom, Harford starts talking about some research by two psychologists on the effects of messy desks and managerial control. Here’s the money shot:

They found that when people had control over their spaces they got loads done. They were happy. Comfortable. Productive. But when the experimenters came in and rearranged the space and said, “Oh, I’m afraid, you can’t have the potted plant there. You can’t put your poster there,” and they would change things, people got very resentful and it was multi-dimensional resentment. They hated the experimenter, the task. They hated the space. Hated the company. They hated everything. It was just because their autonomy had been threatened.

Ding ding ding.

Work is about control

Our lives are unpredictable. If we have kids or sick parents, they are more unpredictable. You spend a lot of time at work. (Probably more than you really should.) Since you’re there a lot and the rest of your life might be lacking some degree of control, you’d hope to get control of something at work. This is why we gag everything in process. See, offices are made of human beings. Those are emotional creatures. But all day, every day we are confronted with supposedly “logical” ideas, i.e. process. That’s a disconnect. Why does it occur? Because people want control. Control is super important in offices. It could be in the form of hierarchy, or “owning a process.” There are dozens of different forms that “control” can take; what matters is that you have it, or at the very least feel it.

I’ve used this example before, but one more time won’t hurt. Consider two scenarios:

  • You give your boss a shitty project but he/she was in control of every aspect of its development.
  • You give your boss an amazing project but it seems/feels like you weren’t following rules/process.

Which bullet should get you rewarded? №2.

But now: which bullet will get you rewarded? №1.

And, in fact, Bullet №2 might well get you in trouble.

Why? Because the project outcome doesn’t matter. The control matters.

What does control have to do with being able to work independently?

If you have a job where you can feasibly work independently, you now have control over something. And, as we just established, control is more important than actual quality of work in many situations.

Follow the bouncing ball, and maybe the key to real “employee engagement” is more autonomy. Maybe you should let more people work independently. Let people be people. Don’t force them into inauthentic boxes.

Of course, the whole deal comes down to trust. A hiring process, for example, is rooted in trust. The company believes the candidate will tell the truth and represent their skills properly. Flip side: the candidate believes the company will be fair and paint a picture of what it’s like to work there. Each side goes through the motions and someone is hired. Somehow, in the most magical bullshit of all, 3 days into a new job virtually every iota of trust has been ripped from the new employee. His manager is all over him. Deliverables are flying over cubicle walls with no context. No shot at this guy getting to work independently. “Show me the numbers, Jason,” his middle manager purrs. “Those aren’t the numbers I needed. I’m calling HR!”

Ludicrous how often we discuss “trust” and “reputation” in business journalism and yet, it barely matters to many managers at the execution level. If it did, we’d have more ability to work independently and see problems through. We don’t, though. Because what matters is control, and that grab for control is what destroys employee engagement and morale. How simple can I make this?

What else would you add about the “work independently” culture or lack thereof?

Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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