Problematizing the Tension between Autonomy and Control at the workplace.
One of the most challenging things to a leader is managing and balancing the tension between 'autonomy and control' at the workplace.
If a leader control over every detail issues (micro-management) in the workplace, subordinates of the leader lose their interests in works and avoid any self-directed actions or decision-makings to achieve mutual goals.
Vice versa, if a leader do nothing but wait things to be done by subordinates, (Lassez-faire), the leader fails in achieving targeted goals because subordinates tend to be deviated from the goals.
However, is this tension between autonomy and control a real problem at the workplace?
In this section, I want to address the issue of tension between autonomy and control at the workplace by using several 'heuristics for thinking about social phenomena or questions' that are introduced by Jaccard and Jacoby (2010, see the appendix1) as a framework. Two interview results (24 participants from diversified employee groups and 9 engineers at a R&D team in Korea), and my personal knowledge and experiences are used for application of those heuristics.
Heuristic 1: Analyze your own experience.
When I worked as a business strategy consultant at a large consulting firm, I had two bosses. One was an associate consultant and the other was a partner. The partner was not easily accessible because he was busy to work other projects in multiple-sites. He was seldom to have communication with my consulting team, and frequently avoided give a direction for my team. My consulting team had got little attentions from the partner, and the team needed to be very self-directed. One day, when my team had a critical problem with a client, the partner came to my site and he bursted out for the problem. But my team members could not understand the reason why he exhibited his negative emotions to us because we had little guidance from him about the consulting project.
On the other hand, I usually worked with an associate consultant who was newly hired from a prestigious consulting firm. He joined my project as his first one at the consulting firm, and was highly motivated to show his competencies. He was very precise and exact person. Whenever I bring an idea, the associate consultant focused on pointing out every single typo; line matching; grammar error; and table alignment rather than my idea. He also tried to managed almost every single behavior of mine and tried to fix it. For example, I had to change my mobile phone to a newer and prestigious model because he urged me to change it to show privilege of business consultant to client.
I was disengaged from the consulting job not because of hard working but because I was sick and tired about 'no-direction but blaming' of a partner and 'micro-management for nothing' from an associate consultant.
Heuristic 2: Use a case study.
This case indicate that a leader's disagreeable control can significantly reduce employee's work engagement.
Heuristic 7: Analyze paradoxical incidents.
From interview results, a paradoxical relationship is identified. In short, managers demand higher self-directed work engagement to their subordinates while employees want to more autonomy and support from leaders.
From employee's side
From manager's side
Quote1: “We do not have any decision making power for our works because our boss decides almost everything. We hesitate proposing any ideas but conduct only descending works from our boss.” (A mid-level manager at a manufacturing company)
Quote3: "The most supportive thing to achieve high performance is leader's support and decision-making for resolving a conflict between teams. Since controlling other teams is over my authority, only leader who have a sufficient power can make a progress." (A mide-level manager at a Telecommunication company)
| Quote1: "People who formulate a work by himself, fully engage at the work, and accomplish it with others is the most valuable resource to achieve high performance" (A director of a manufacturing company)
Quote2: "Employees must devote themselves into the goals that their team have to accomplish. And then, they should be evaluated not by descending order but by their own achievement" (A manager at a shipbuilding company).
Quote3: "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink" "Employee's self-directed participation and engagement is the most important thing to achieve high performance. Therefore, manager's leadership is critical" (A manager at an automaker)
Keywords: Decision-making power, Autonomy, Facilitating group conflict , Support from leader
Keywords: Self-directed, Engagement, Leadership
In more detail, employees and managers indicate that positive autonomy and positive control help them to achieve higher performance in the workplace. For example, if employees have a flexibility in learning, work design, goal setting, networking, and information sharing, they would like to have higher engagement in their work resulting in higher performance. Employees, however, want to get positive control from their managers and organizations such as clear goal setting, clear and detail order, and more communications. On the other hand, employees indicate that negative control is the most problematic (grounded 16) to achieve high performance. Many employees describe that performance evaluation results are highly subjected to the quality of relationship with managers, and they also complain about attribution problem of their personal contribution to work performance. For example, employees argue about their individual performance cannot be separated from teamwork and collaboration with other teams since they are working in team structure in large organizations. Even in a small organization, the subjective performance evaluation is problematic. A sales person described that his personal achievement in sales is not fully attributed to him but the success is frequently attributed to 'organizational success'. Managers or leaders' myopic and spontaneous order discourage employees to have higher engagement in their work.
In summary, employees think the negative control from their managers or leaders is most influential to engagement in their work, and they indicate that positive control with sufficient autonomy are essential in achieving higher performance. There seems a certain 'tacit agreement' between employees and managers that are formulated along with dynamic interactions. If the tacit agreement is kept well, employees would like to engage their works until the agreement is broken by their managers or leaders.
Positive (+) Autonomy (6)
Positive (+) Control (11)
Negative (-) Autonomy (2)
Negative (-) Control (16)
How does HRD, management, and psychology literature theorized these social phenomena of tension between autonomy and control in the workplace? In the next part, I will review concepts and theories in HRD, management, and psychology literature that are related with the tension between autonomy and control in the workplace basing on my interview results.
Concepts and Theories for Problematizing
The tension between autonomy and control at the workplace has emerged as a critical issue as a research theme.
What solid theories can explain the role of 'tacit agreement' between leaders and subordinates with the regards of employee's work engagement and balancing autonomy and control?
In this section, several theories that are related to 'autonomy and control'; 'work engagement'; 'tacit agreement'; and 'leadership' are explored.
First, tacit agreement refers to "implied or inferred (agreement) without direct expression" (see, http://www.thefreedictionary.com/tacit). This tacit agreement between leader and employees can be addressed by the psychological contract theory.
Psychological contract is "the mutual belief, perception, and informal obligations between employer (supervisor/leader) and employee. It sets the dynamics for the relationship and define the practicality of the work to be done. It is distinguished from the formal written contract of employment what, for the most part, only identifies mutual duties and responsibilities in a generalized form" (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_contract). Tacit agreement between leader and subordinate in the workplace can be acknowledged with the 'the mutual belief, the mutual perception, and informal obligations' between agents, and it is commonly active in unwritten contract form. Psychological contract dynamically changes over time and situation, and it is highly influenced by leadership and personal psychological states. For example, violation of the psychological contract of a leader creates cost of losing trust; increasing uncertainty; and occurrence of conflict, resulting in employees' 1) disengagement from work and 2) misalignment with strategic goals.
Second, psychological contract is viewed as a job resource in job demands-resources (JD-R) model (Hakanen and Roodt, 2012, in the book of work engagement by Bakkaer and Leiter). The origin of JD-R model can be traced back to the demand-control model (DCM) of Karasek (1979). According to DCM model, job stress is caused by high job demands and low job control. Referring to the quotes from employee side from interviews (conducting only descending works from supervisor; little authority but full responsibility; unable to control other teams), the DCM model is quite compelling to understand the employee's disengagement from work for their job stress when the balance is broken. However, DCM model has several weaknesses to address the complex reality of working organization (Bakker and Demerouti, 2007). Bakker and Demerouti extended the DCM and suggested the job demand-resources (JD-R) model considering the complex nature of works across contexts. JD-R model is a heuristic model that includes two specific sets of working conditions, job demands and job resources, in its prediction of employee well-being, regardless of occupational group.
Job demands represent "the characteristics of the job that potentially evoke strain, in case they exceed the employee's adaptive capability" (Bakker et al, 2007, 275). More specifically, the job demands refer to :"those physical, social, or organizational aspects of the job that require sustained physical and/or psychological (i.e., cognitive and emotional) effort on the part of the employee, and are therefore associated withe certain physiological and/or psychological costs" (Demerouti et al, 2001, p. 50). Examples of job demands are time and work pressure, the emotional demands, an adverse physical work environment, role ambiguity, role conflits, and role overload.
Job resources refer to "working conditions that provide resources for individual employees". More specifically, job resources are "those physical, psychological, social, or organizational aspects of the job that may (a) reduce job demands and the associated physiological and psychological costs, (b) are functional in achieving work goals, and (c) stimulate personal growth, learning and development (Demerouti et al., 2001, p. 501). Job resources may be located on the following levels:
- Organizational level: salary, career opportunities, job security
- Interpersonal and social relations: supervisor and co-worker support
- Organization of work: role clarity, participation in decision making
- Task: performance feedback, skill variety, autonomy
In general, JD-R model proposes that high job demands and a lack of job resources drive employees' disengagement from works and burnout (Bakker & Demerouti, 2007).
Parzefall and Hakanen (in press) integrated psychological contract approach and the JD-R model with focusing on perceived contract fulfillment as the resources that employees expect the employer or leader to provide. When psychological contract is fulfilled by the leader, employees have a better quality of relationship with the leader, higher work engagement, more positive attitude toward work, and lesser turnover intention.
Third, personal resources such as optimism, self-efficacy, resilience, and hope (core constructs of positive organizational behavior - calling psychological capital)are influential to work engagement as well as job resources (Sweetman & Luthans, 2010, in the book of Bakker & Leiter). Work engagement is defined as "a positive, fulfilling, affective-motivational state of work-related well-being that can be seen as the antipode of job burnout (Bakker & Leiter, 2010). Specifically, Schaufeli et al., (2006) theorized the engagement as a higher-order core factor comprising three interrelated constructs: vigor, dedication, and absorption. Vigor is defined as consisting of high levels of willingness to invest energy into the work at hand, coupled with the mental resilience to persevere even in the case of difficulties, Energy is the underlying bipolar dimension with vigor at one end, and emotional exhaustion at the other (Gonzalez-Roma et al, 2006). Dedication in the context of the JD-R model is described as "being strongly involved in one's work and inspiration, pride, and challenge" (Schaufeli et al., 2006, p.3). Absorption in work can be though of as being fully engrossed in, and in a mindset enabling full concentration in that work (Schufeli et al., 2006). At the positively deviant end of the absorption spectrum, individuals experience the flow, whereby time passes quickly and one has difficulties with detaching oneself from work (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). The influence of the three psycap constructs (hope; self-efficacy; optimism) on work engagement has been supported with an empirical study of Dutch technician study (Xanthopoulou Bakker, Demerouti, and Schaufeli, 2007).
The general work engagement model is presented in above figure. In short, research shows that job and personal resources (PsyCap) are predictive of work engagement. Job demands moderate the resources-engagement relationship. Indeed, a central assumption in the JD-R model is that resources become more salient and gain their motivational potential when employees are confronted with high demands (Bakker * Demerouti, 2007; Hakanen & Roodt, 2010). Engagement is positively related to performance. The model proposes that those who are highly engaged and perform well will mobilize more personal resources or psychological capital, and more job resources like autonomy, social support, and career opportunities.
Fourth, openness is an important antecedent to a relational transparency (Luthans, 2010, p. 97), and this transparency leads to trust in leader-follower relationship, resulting in building psychological contract (Rousseau, 1995). Once established, psychological contract evolves from a common understanding by words to a willingness to trust by actions (Luthans, 2010). This dynamics of psychological contract indicates the importance of leaders's authenticity in formulating and sustaining the psychological contract.
Authenticity is defined as "owning one's personal experiences (e.g., thought, emotions, needs, wants, preferences, or beliefs) (Harter, 2002). In addition to owning one's personal experiences, authenticity also involves a acting in accordance with the true self (expressing true thoughts and beliefs and acting accordingly). People are neither completely authentic nor inauthentic, but are best described as existing on a continuum from more to less authentic (Erickson, 1995). Authentic leadership is centered around empathy and a leader's values or character. If the leader understands their subordinates, they can inspire subordinates by cultivating a personal connection and leading them to share in the vision and goals of the team. Authentic leadership is a root construct and foundation that serves as a pont of departure for other forms of leadership such as transformational or transactional leadership. In detail, a transformational or transactional leader can be more or less authentic, but the authentic leader is not defined as being a particular style of leader per se (Avolio & Gardner, 2005; Luthans and Avolio, 2003). Kernis (2003) suggests four components of authentic leadership: self-awareness, unbiased processing, authentic action, and relational transparency.
According to recent research on the relationship between authentic leadership and trust, authentic leadership has positive relationship with trust in leadership (Clapp-Smith, 2009) and group trust (Walumwa, 2011) that are related with psychological contract. In addition, authentic leadership has positive relationships with group psychological capital (Walumbwa, 2011).
In summary, job resources, including autonomy or psychological contract, and personal resources positively related with work engagement, and this relationship is moderated by job demand. Authentic leadership may help building a better psychological contract between employee and employer resulting in a higher perceived job resource.
Heuristic 9: Use analogies and metaphor.
A candle metaphor can give us more solid understandings about the tension between autonomy and control at the workplace.
The candle metaphor resembles with running a business in recent chaotic and uncertain environment (external factors). Job demands such as work pressure, emotional, mental, and physiological demands as well as role challenges increases as the business environment gets more chaotic. In order to survive and explore a new business opportunities, organizational leaders must acquire sustainable and positive outcomes (exploring and escaping a cave). Organizational outcomes are come from group and individual performances (the candle light). Employee's engagement in goals, strategy, teamwork, and their personal efforts is critical to draw sustainable and high performances (the frame). Job resources such as social support, learning and development opportunity, job control, and manpower are fundamental resources for employee engagement (the wax). Personal resources such as positive psychological resources (self-efficacy; hope; optimism; resilience - psychological capital) and positive emotion realize job resources as employee engagement (the wick). Organizational leaders, generally executives; specifically functional leader (team leaders; project leaders), need to 1) make a balance between autonomy (flexibility to change) and control (moving forward), and 2) create resources (feeding wax and aligning wick).
Heuristic 11: Apply deviant case analysis.
JD-R model and the candle model help us to understand the tension between autonomy and control to a certain extent. However, the model has a foundation assumption: job resources are given by supervisor, coworker, and organization rather than they are cultivated by individuals. For example, job control or autonomy is viewed as a power of control that is delegated or empowered by supervisor or organization.
However, can individuals cultivate and enhance power of control of their works - increasing autonomy or job control with certain efforts?
Here is a deviant case that is constructive for an employee and his organization.
This deviant case shows a critical tension between the employee's: compliance to organizational rules and creativity. Specifically, the case reveals the local R&D engineer' and the local R&D manager's dilemma between compliance to HQ's control and autonomy for meeting local customer's demand.
The case, specifically, indicates that an individual cultivates job control power or autonomy through engaging and performing self-directed work under his local supervisor or coworker's conscious permissiveness or tacit agreement.
Another case can show that how expatriated technical coordinator to a local branch helps balancing the HQ's control and autonomy for meeting local demands in an MNC.
Compared to the local engineer 'S' case, the expatriated engineer 'U' proceeded extra tests with ease because he could acquire unwritten permission with ease before legitimizing the technical problem within the MNC.
How to understand this unique autonomy cultivation phenomena in a local R&D of a large MNC?
In order to make a solid understand about the tension between autonomy and control in the workplace, four quadrant model is presented.
Quadrant IV is the domain of high consciousness of people and low permissiveness to an individual. This domain is characterized as high control over an individual with strong intention. Newly coming individuals or novices experience this domain of control. For example, a newly hired engineer will be given written job descriptions, process manuals, and manual books for his or her job in R&D. The newly hired employee may be evaluated by strict manual and written rules because a supervisor or coworkers want to avoid any risks from him or her by breaking an official rule in the organization. Subsidiary organization in an MNC may place in this domain as well because HQ want to averse any local risks which may harmful for whole global organization's central policy or practice.
Quadrant I is the domain of high consciousness of people and high permissiveness to an individual. this domain is characterized as high activation of 'tacit agreement' and 'social norm' that expand individual autonomy. Highly experienced people in a team or an organization may place in this domain for their credibility and history. Like the engineer 'S' in a subsidiary R&D, people in this domain can get conscious-permission from others in his organization because of his continual contribution on technical problem solving history. Self-directed work design, high engagement in the work, and sustainable work performance are the characteristics of people in this domain. However, the broadness of this domain is highly socially constructed. As indicated in the case of engineer "U", an individual who come from HQ can cultivate this domain with relatively ease because he already had the sufficient credibility, legitimacy, and good social relations with key decision-makers.
Quadrant II and III are not addressed in this article since these domains are related with unconsciousness of people. These domains are needed to be explored in a more solid body of knowledge about unconsciousness. For example, emotion display is frequently unconsciously activated by supervisors or coworkers. Several research found out that habitual display of negative emotions of supervisor affects to employees's creativity in an organization (Brundin, E., Patzelt, H., & Shepherd, D. A. (2008). Managers' emotional displays and employees' willingness to act entrepreneurially. Journal of Business Venturing, 23(2), 221-243. )
In summary of deviant cases, employees can and have to cultivate autonomy within an organization to improve their job performance via high work engagement. Specifically, employees need to expand the domain of conscious-permissiveness to realize autonomy. The tension between conscious-control and conscious-permissiveness is significantly problematic in MNC organizations because of communication and legitimacy problem between HQ and Subsidiary organizations.
Through problematizing process of the tension between autonomy and control in the workplace, the author pointed out the tension between central control of HQ and subsidiary autonomy for addressing local demands is very significant in MNCs. Two deviant cases reveals that subsidiary employees facilitate the tension by cultivating and realizing the autonomy under the conscious-permissiveness of local organizations. In the perspective of HRD, a few interesting research topics emerge:
A research inquiry in the perspective of international HRD:
What competencies(and How) do MNCs need to develop for subsidiary employee's to make a balance between compliance of central control of HQ and meeting local demands?
1. How subsidiary employees acquire conscious-permissiveness within the local organization or from HQ?
2. What skills are needed to be developed to help subsidiary employees to acquire conscious-permissiveness within the local organization or from HQ?
3. What individual factors are influential to cultivation of conscious-permissiveness?
4. What social factors affects to subsidiary employee's development of conscious-permissiveness?
5. What is the role of leadership in developing subsidiary employee's development of conscious-permissiveness?
A Conceptual Model will be developed with literature review on micro-political power issue in international management.
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