I was fortunate enough to hear Dan Pink speak in New York recently about his new book DRIVE: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Both in his book and in his talk Pink stresses the importance of autonomy, the common need to direct our own lives. At one point he writes, “Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.”
Within a day or two, quite by chance, I’d come across three striking examples that prove Pink’s point. Conversations with two friends -- one a high school dean, the other a mental health professional -- and an article by a law professor in the Sunday Times Magazine all pointed in the same direction: give people some control, some sense that they can participate in decisions made about their lives, and they will perform better than if their behavior is forced. It seems like such a simple and obvious concept, but there are many bosses and managers (and especially, from my personal experience, high school administrators) who don’t seem to grasp it.
Three populations are under discussion here: convicts on parole, patients in a state mental health system, and high school seniors. To a greater or lesser degree, all have mandated state supervision. I suppose one could argue that high school seniors aren’t legally compelled to stay in school any longer. They could walk off the reservation. To mix metaphors, they are so used to a fence that they don’t realize the electricity has been turned off for a while.
My friend, the dean, had a recent alumna return to congratulate him on his respectful and compassionate guidance. (As a firsthand observer of his effort, I heartily concur.) She commented on the fact that though she’d been late to school often, he’d never punished her for it. He responded that he felt timely arrival at school was an issue for parents and students to reconcile. They needed to determine for themselves how important the issue really was. He reasoned that as a dean he had more important things to do regarding student welfare than to fight over minor infractions regarding arrival time, especially since in his institution, there was ample time between the designated arrival time and the beginning of a student’s first class period. His choice to pick his battle earned him the respect and cooperation of his charges in his larger day-to-day dealings with them, and ultimately their well deserved and enthusiastically expressed admiration for him at the end of the school year.
My friend, the mental health professional, is faced with a different challenge. He’s being asked to establish an outpatient facility for mental health patients who have been previously institutionalized under tight security, in part because they are self-destructive. They’ll swallow things like razor blades and batteries if they can get their hands on them. I asked why placing them in an environment where they were less strictly supervised wouldn’t pose a problem. His response: these people tend to do better in a less coercive environment. Part of their self-destructive behavior is in reaction to being forced to lead highly monitored, regulated lives. When given a bit of control over their behavior, they respond favorably and are less likely to harm themselves. They abuse themselves as a form of protest. With less need to protest, there is less need for the abuse.
The Sunday Times Magazine piece, Prisoners of Parole, was by Jeffrey Rosen. Rosen described a state trial judge in Hawaii, Steven Alm, who was frustrated by the number of cases appearing before him involving repeat parole violations. “Working with U.S. marshals and local police, Alm arranged for a new procedure: if offenders tested positive for drugs or missed an appointment, they would be arrested within hours and most would have a hearing with 72 hours. Those who were found to have violated probation would be quickly sentenced to a short jail term proportionate to the severity of the violation – typically a few days.”
Prior to implementing his new procedure Alm assembled a group of repeat offenders and warned them that they were to abide by the rules of probation or they’d be arrested on the spot and immediately do some jail time. They were given the rules. The choice of how to behave was theirs to make. “Within a six-month period, the rate of positive drug tests fell by 93 percent…with a fall of 14 percent for probationers in a comparison group.”
Rosen continued, “Classical deterrence theory has long held that the threat of a mild punishment imposed reliably and immediately has a much greater deterrent effect than the threat of a severe punishment that is delayed and uncertain. …Alm discovered another reason why the strategy works: people are most likely to obey the law when they’re subject to punishments they perceive as legitimate, fair and consistent, rather than arbitrary and capricious. ‘When the system isn’t consistent and predictable, when people are punished randomly, they think, My probation officer doesn’t like me, or, Someone’s prejudiced against me,’ Alm told me, “rather than seeing that everyone who breaks a rule is treated equally, in precisely the same way.”
No one is suggesting that the inmates run the asylum. Autonomy runs on a spectrum. I am suggesting, however, that those supervisors, bosses, managers and administrators willing to yield some control of those under their authority might find the dividend to be well worth their time and effort.