A lack of autonomy is a threat
This is the third blog in a series about the science behind the right environment for success. See the related posts at thebottom of this article for the others.
So, we are exploring the things that are scientifically (and physiologically) proven to force people into performing below their best. Another thing that invokes the threat response is a loss of autonomy.
It is true, when we lose the feeling of control, our ability to problem-solve goes out the window. In fact, there are some studies that suggest that even the thought of a controlling boss causes our effective IQ to decrease by 10 points!
The feeling of control also affects health. People who feel ‘controlled’ in their relationship (with their spouse, or their boss) are more prone to illness, and people who live in retirement homes that don’t allow choice and control over aspects of day-to-day activity actually live, on average, seven years less than those who do have control
The physiology of losing control
- We shift resources from the most useful part of our brain to the ‘auto-pilot’
- We get significant spike in the brain’s ‘adrenaline’, causing us to pay a lot of attention to the stressor, but not the task at hand
- We get a significant decrease the amount of dopamine, leading to decreased problem solving and creative thinking
On the other hand, when we give people autonomy, the opposite of these things happen and we create a performance state for the people we are managing. This is true even if you don’t manage people per se, but want to make people comfortable and allow them to perform at their best – whatever that means.
Perception of control matters more than actual control
Perception is a funny thing. And the perception of control evokes the same ‘reward response’ as actual control. So the question becomes “How can I give control – however small – to my people so that they do their best work?”
In any interaction between subordinate and superior, there will be a degree of tight/loose management. That is, some things are ‘tight’: they are not up for debate – but some things are ‘loose’: there is a degree of flexibility in how they are achieved. The trick is to find this balance and realise that in the moments of the worst directives from head office (or even from yourself) there is always something over which people can take ownership.
It seems that we can even fool ourselves….
Even giving ourselves the feeling of choice causes us to perform at our best. Some recent research showed that when people thought attempting their goals, those who asked “Will I do this?” performed significantly better than those who said, “I will do this.”
So find as many things as possible to let your people have control over. If they have to write a report, let them do things their own way. If they have to move workstations, let them choose the colour of their desk chairs. If your children simply have to wear shoes, let them pick their own socks – regardless of whether they match or not. You will find people’s response in this situation is decidedly different from the alternative. If you could see their brains, you would see that it responds differently too.