Joel Brockner: Can Job Autonomy Be a Double-Edged Sword?

This post was originally published on the Psychology Today blog.

“You can arrive to work whenever convenient.”

“Work from home whenever you wish.”

“You can play music at work at any time.”

These are examples of actual workplace policies from prominent companies such as Aetna, American Express, Dell, Facebook, Google, IBM, and Zappos. They have joined the ranks of many organizations in giving employees greater job autonomy, that is, more freedom to decide when, where, and how to do their work. And why not? Research by organizational psychologists such as Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham and by social psychologists such as Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, has shown that job autonomy can have many positive effects. The accumulated evidence is that employees who experience more autonomy are more motivated, creative, and satisfied with their jobs.

Against this backdrop of the generally favorable effects of job autonomy, recent research has shown that it also may have a dark side: unethical behavior. Jackson Lu, Yoav Vardi, Ely Weitz and I discovered such results in a series of field and laboratory studies soon to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. In field studies conducted in Israel, employees from a wide range of industries rated how much autonomy they had and how often they engaged in unethical behavior, such as misrepresenting their work hours or wasting work time on private phone calls. Those who had greater autonomy said that they engaged in more unethical behavior on the job. In laboratory experiments conducted in the United States we found that it may not even be necessary for people to have actual autonomy for them to behave unethically; merely priming them with the idea of autonomy may do the trick. In these studies participants were randomly assigned to conditions differing in how much the concept of autonomy was called to mind. This was done with a widely used sentence-unscrambling task in which people had to rearrange multiple series of words into grammatically correct sentences. For example, those in the high-autonomy condition were given words such as, “have many as you as days wish you vacation may” which could be rearranged to form the sentence, “You may have as many vacation days as you wish.” In contrast, those in the low-autonomy condition were given words such as, “office in work you must the,” which could be rearranged to, “You must work in the office.” After completing the sentence-unscrambling exercise participants did another task in which they were told that the amount of money they earned depended on how well they performed. The activity was structured in a way that enabled us to tell whether participants lied about their performance. Those who were previously primed to experience greater autonomy in the sentence-unscrambling task lied more. Job autonomy gives employees a sense of freedom which usually has positive effects on their productivity and morale but also can lead them to feel that they can do whatever they want, including not adhering to rules of morality.

All behavior is a function of what people want to do (motivation) and what they are capable of doing (ability). Consider the unethical behavior elicited by high levels of autonomy. Having high autonomy may not have made people want to behave unethically. However, it may have enabled the unethical behavior by making it possible for people to engage in it. Indeed, the distinction between people wanting to behave unethically versus having the capability of doing so may help answer two important questions:

(1) What might mitigate the tendency for job autonomy to elicit unethical behavior?

(2) If job autonomy can lead to unethical behavior should companies re-evaluate whether to give job autonomy to its employees? That is, can job autonomy be introduced in a way that maximizes its positive consequences (e.g., greater creativity) without introducing the negative effect of unethical behavior?

With respect to the first question, my hunch is that people who have job autonomy and therefore are able to behave unethically will not do so if they do not want to behave unethically. For example, people who are high on the dimension of moral identity, for whom behaving morally is central to how they define themselves would be less likely to behave unethically even when a high degree of job autonomy enabled or made it possible for them to do so.

With respect to the second question, I am not recommending that companies abandon their efforts to provide employees with job autonomy. Our research suggests, rather, that the consequences of giving employees autonomy may not be summarily favorable. Taking a more balanced view of how employees respond to job autonomy may shed light on how organizations can maximize the positive effects of job autonomy while minimizing the negative consequence of unethical behavior.

Whereas people generally value having autonomy, some people want it more than others. People who want autonomy a lot may be less likely to behave unethically when they experience autonomy. For one thing, they may be concerned that the autonomy they covet may be taken away if they were to take advantage of it by behaving unethically. This reasoning led us to do another study to evaluate when the potential downside of felt autonomy can be minimized while its positive effects can be maintained. Once again, we primed people to experience varying degrees of job autonomy with the word-unscrambling exercise. Half of them then went on to do the task which measured their tendency to lie about their performance, whereas the other half completed an entirely different task, one measuring their creativity. Once again, those who worked on the task in which they could lie about their performance did so more when they were primed to experience greater autonomy. And, as has been found in previous research those who did the creativity task performed better at it when they were primed to experience greater autonomy.

Regardless of whether they did the task that measured unethical behavior or creativity, participants also indicated how much they generally valued having autonomy. Among those who generally valued having autonomy to a greater extent, (1) the positive relationship between experiencing job autonomy and behaving unethically diminished, whereas (2) the positive relationship between experiencing job autonomy and creativity was maintained. In other words, as long as people valued having autonomy, the experience of autonomy had the positive effect of enhancing creativity without introducing the dangerous side effect of unethical behavior. So, when organizations introduce job autonomy policies like those mentioned at the outset, they may gain greater overall benefits when they ensure that their employees value having autonomy. This may be achieved by selecting employees who value having autonomy as well as by creating a corporate culture which emphasizes the importance of it. More generally, a key practical takeaway from our studies is that when unethical behavior is enabled, whether through job autonomy or other factors, it needs to be counterbalanced by conditions that make employees not want to go there.

BrocknerJoel Brockner is the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business at Columbia Business School. He is the author of The Process Matters: Engaging and Equipping People for Success.

Elizabeth Anderson: Is your workplace a dictatorship?

AndersonOne in four American workers says their workplace is a “dictatorship.” Yet that number probably would be even higher if we recognized most employers for what they are—private governments with sweeping authoritarian power over our lives, on duty and off. We normally think of government as something only the state does, yet many of us are governed far more—and far more obtrusively—by the private government of the workplace. In Private Government, Elizabeth Anderson argues that the failure to see this stems from long-standing confusions. These confusions explain why, despite all evidence to the contrary, we still talk as if free markets make workers free—and why so many employers advocate less government even while they act as dictators in their businesses. Recently she took time to answer some questions about her new book.

Most contemporary discussions of work focus on wages, benefits, and unemployment.  You want to focus on the power of employers over workers.  How does that matter for workers today?

EA: Millions of workers in the United States labor under humiliating and abusive conditions. Most poultry workers, for example, aren’t allowed to use the bathroom during their shift, and are told to wear diapers to work. The vast majority of restaurant workers suffer from sexual harassment. Managers scream at warehouse workers when they can’t keep up with the grueling pace, or get injured on the job. They search workers’ bodies and personal property, and listen in on their conversations with co-workers. These conditions aren’t inherent in these types of work. The aren’t like the dangers that firefighters unavoidably face. They are imposed by employers. Employers can do this because they have power over workers and can threaten their livelihoods if they don’t submit. This kind of unaccountable power is objectionable even when workers are paid decently. Many professional and managerial workers who enjoy good pay are pressured by their bosses to contribute to political candidates their bosses prefer, and know that their contributions are being monitored. Workers up and down the organization chart are bullied by their bosses. It’s high time that we drew attention to these problems.  Work doesn’t have to be this way.

You claim that current political discussions confuse government with the state.  Why is that a point of confusion, and why is it important to distinguish the two?

EA: Politicians are constantly telling people that “the government” is interfering with their freedom.  What they mean by “government” is the organs of the state—the Federal government, or agencies of the 50 states. This way of talking misleadingly suggests that if we only got the state out of our hair, we’d be perfectly free to lead our lives as we choose.  It masks the fact that other kinds of governments, with unelected leaders, also rule our lives. The workplace is a type of government, and bosses are the rulers of this government. It’s important to recognize this reality, because managers often regulate workers’ lives far more intrusively and minutely than state governments regulate the lives of ordinary citizens. Most workers are not free under the government of the workplace, because they have no voice, no representation in that government. State regulation of workplaces can actually make them more free by setting constraints on what their bosses can do to them—for example, barring harassment and discriminatory treatment.

You’re concerned about the conditions for workers today.  Yet you begin your discussion with the Levellers of the mid-17th century.  What can we learn from them?

EA: The Levellers were a group of egalitarian activists in mid-17th century England. They advanced a way of talking about free market society as liberating for workers. They saw that the state was not the only government that ruled their lives. As small craftsmen, they were also governed by the monopolistic guilds. Freeing up markets meant ending monopoly control, which would enable craft workers like themselves to be their own bosses, and expand the ranks of the self-employed. Other 17th and 18th century figures, including Adam Smith and Tom Paine, similarly believed that freeing up markets would open the way to nearly universal self-employment. Lincoln carried that vision into the mid-19th century. The Industrial Revolution destroyed their ideas of how free markets would make workers free. It bankrupted self-employed craftsmen and forced them to submit to bosses in big factories. We still talk today as if markets make workers free, forgetting that this idea depended on pre-industrial conditions. The originators of free market ideas were vividly aware that wage workers were subjected to the arbitrary rule of their employers, and thought that free markets would make workers free by enabling them to escape rule by bosses. Today, talk of how markets make workers free is magical thinking, masking the reality that bosses govern their lives.

How do you think the governance of the workplace can be improved?

EA: I argue that workers need a voice in how the workplace is governed.  Other measures, such as making it easier for workers to quit, and laws protecting workers’ privacy and off-duty activities from employer meddling, can certainly help. But these can’t substitute for workers having a say in how the workplace is governed. Labor unions once gave voice to more than a third of American workers. These days, outside the state sector, few workers are represented by a union. Yet unions are not the only way that workers can have a say in workplace governance. In Europe, so-called co-determination, in which workplaces are jointly managed by owners and workers, is common. I make the case for exploring different ways workers could have a say, to open up a topic that is hard to frame in today’s impoverished political discourse.

What inspired you to write this book?

EA: I have long been interested in the lived experience of workers, particularly those at the bottom of the labor market. Their experiences are unjustly neglected in today’s public discourse. It should be a major public outrage that so many workers today are denied bathroom breaks, and suffer innumerable other indignities that almost no politicians talk about! Instead, a common response of politicians and the managerial class is: if you don’t like it, then why don’t you quit? The freedom of workers is just the freedom to quit. The inadequacy of this response should be glaring. But today’s public discourse doesn’t help us see why. My research on the history of egalitarianism uncovered the reasons why public discourse is so inadequate, and motivates alternative ways of talking about workers’ complaints, so they can be taken seriously. In the United States, it’s normal to complain about government regulation interfering with our freedom. Once we recognize that employers subject workers to their own dictatorial government, it’s easier to sympathize with workers’ complaints, and think about remedies.

Elizabeth Anderson is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is the author of Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It).