The autonomy budget

“People can’t be motivated – they can only be demotivated.”

I came across this quote last week on, a German platform promoting a modern working culture. The line struck a chord and kept popping back into my head. Its underlying idea is part of Douglas McGregor’s models of workforce motivation. McGregor says you can look at people in one of two ways: Either they’re essentially demotivated – they dislike work and will avoid it wherever possible (Theory X). Or they’re essentially motivated to work, create and better themselves and will thrive in the right environment (Theory Y).
Depending on how you choose to look at workers, you pick a corresponding management style: One that is either based on punishments vs. rewards or mutual trust and responsibility.

A funny thing about McGregor’s model is that most people will classify themselves as a type Y character while rating most of their co-workers type X. Organisations are prone to something similar – they often adopt both theories but keep them strictly separate:
HR will post job offers searching for driven, open-minded modern thinkers that are not afraid to go against conventions while promising them autonomy and room to be creative. Management will then wedge new hires into a deadlock of established processes, practices and rules that make it a huge hassle to get anything done outside the mainstream.

You can examine your personal position on the X-Y scale by doing a simple experiment that I call the autonomy budget: Visit your organisations carreer page and check the jobs offered right now. Screen the postings for expressions like “autonomy/self-reliance”, “room for own ideas”, “continually adapting/evolving organisation”, “short lines of communication/flat hierarchy” etc.
For every expression you find your autonomy budget grows by 100 Euros. Add up your budget and walk into your bosses office, saying “I just booked an advanced training course for [so and so many] Euros. Should I just account for it with the rest of my monthly expenses?” Their reaction to this autonomous action on your part will give you a good indicator whether management sees you as a type X or Y worker and – that’s what the budget is for – if that view fits the purported corporate image.
You can also use this as a thought experiment in a job interview: Just calculate the autonomy budget of the position you’re applying for and ask the manager how they would react if you came to them with this question. Let us know how it goes and how satisfied you are with the results!


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