Part 1: Autonomy – Autonomy Support – Autonomy Enabling

I wrote the 1st of a 2-part post some time ago, but never published it because I didn’t get around to completing part 2. I’m finally publishing part 1 now…because it might ‘make me’ finish the 2nd part.

I’ve been on a book-reading1 and work-experiential journey over many years and have reached a place that I’d like to ‘set out clearly in writing’ (for myself, and others) …and yet I’ve struggled to do this so far (a.k.a writer’s block).

I’ve been talking ‘about’ (but not been writing) this post for months!

So here goes…

Some context:

I (and hordes of other people) work in, around, and across large, complex people-centred systems. Think government departments, NGO’s and so on who are trying to help thousands of clients2 better live their lives.

Such systems are usually highly bureaucratic, operating in an (attempted) ‘control system’ way.

They can be helped to see the problematic performance that this system design provides to their clients, but they (we) can then struggle with moving to a different way of thinking and being.

The aim of this post (‘Part 1’) is to set out the ‘what and why’ of moving to a different paradigm, where ‘control’ is replaced by ‘autonomy’. ‘Part 2’ will aim at discussing the rather important topic of a ‘how’ to get there.

As the title and opening image suggest, there’s an ‘autonomy’ chain (from the client, all the way through the system)

What follows is broken up into:

  • Link 1 (of the chain): Autonomy;
  • Link 2: Autonomy support; and
  • Link 3: Autonomy enabling.

Link 1: Autonomy – People-centred…what does that mean?

I used the term ‘people-centred systems’3 above and I should set out what is being meant, and its relevance.

(As usual) I am writing in respect of service systems (as distinct from manufacturing).

Service systems themselves have been broken into different archetypes. I’ve read various ways of setting these out4, but here’s a simplified version (of 3 archetypes) from me:

  • Archetype 1: Transactional where, given the nature of a customer’s demand (a.k.a. need), it should be able to be resolved in a single interaction.

Example: If I contact my home entertainment provider because I want to change aspects of my plan (e.g. gain access to a movie channel), then I should be able to achieve this by the end of that one interaction.

Note: this may or may not happen in the one interaction, depending on how they have designed their system to respond! It might turn into a right dog’s dinner!

  • Archetype 2: Process where, due to the nature of what the customer/ client needs, it could not be delivered in a single interaction. Instead it needs to enter a process.

Obvious example: If I contact a builder because I want an extension to my house, this can’t be delivered within an initial interaction. Instead, a bunch of (often well understood) stuff now needs to happen (and hopefully flow).

I should reach a point at which the process is completed: I’ve got what I wanted (hopefully efficiently and to a high quality) and I can go on my way.

  • Archetype 3: People-centred (or Relational) where the nature of the need is about the person (client) themselves. This is far more complex than a transaction or a process. All our social systems fit here.

Each person (client) is unique and recognising this is of fundamental importance if we are to help – we can’t just treat it like ‘a transaction’ or ‘put them through a ‘process’.

To help the person, we will need to achieve engagement with them (reaching and sustaining a trusting relationship), and then understand and support them through a (dynamic and evolving) journey in which they have the most important role to play.

The other word used here is relational, because THE important variable for successful change is the relationship between the person and their helper(s).

“At the heart of this new way of working is human connection. When people feel supported by strong human relationships, change happens. And when we design new systems that make this sort of collaboration and connection feel simple and easy, people want to join in. This is not surprising.” (Hillary Cottam, ‘Radical Help’)

The big mistake that many social systems make is that they are designed along transactional and process lines by a (centralised) control system. A relational response can’t be achieved transaction-ally. Sure, such a system might be able to ‘smash out’ transactions…but it will most likely keep its clients dependent upon it, with repeat visits and, sadly, relapses and deterioration.

So, I’ve tried to explain ‘people-centred’ and you might now think ‘er, okay, so what?’

Well, if we are talking about people, and them achieving meaningful and sustained change, then we need to understand the fundamental importance of self-determination (a.k.a autonomy).

People achieve true change when they choose to do so for themselves.

We end up with the (hopefully) rather obvious point that the best way to help another person is via autonomy support (with this concept set out in detail in a previous post), which can only happen via strong human relationships.

Link 2: Autonomy Support – Variety…and how best to handle it

So, we’ve got:

  • the uniqueness of every client and their contextual and dynamic situation;
  • each client (a human being) needing to ‘go there for themselves’; and
  • helpers (also human beings!) that need to travel alongside them, without judgement or attempts at control.

Looking at this, we can see that we have enormous variety in a people-centred system (in clients, in helpers, in ‘client–helper’ relationships). So, what’s the best way to handle this?

Turning to W. Ross Ashby’s Law of requisite variety to assist…this is explored by Gerrit Broekstra in his book ‘Building high-performance, high-trust organisations’:

“Variety is a measure of complexity and refers to the number of possible states of a system.

[There is a] colossal proliferation of variety in dynamic systems.

Applied to organisations in their complex environments, only matching the variety of the organisation can soak up the complexity of the situation with which it is confronted. No hordes of consultants, planning committees, surveys or management training courses can do the trick.

[The most effective way to deal with such variety is to] be organised on the basis of the principle of self-organisation….as exemplified in autonomous groups.

Or, to put it into a simple statement:

          “Only variety absorbs variety.” [Stafford Beer]

I recognise that the above reads as rather theoretical. Here’s a practical example:

Take any large social system. It is usually trying to serve a large geographic area (perhaps even a small country).

A central control system attempts to:

  • monitor what’s going on across the whole (ref. KPI’s);
  • judge from afar (ref. targets, comparisons);
  • design ‘solutions’ (ref. departments/ functions/ specialist roles, products & services, detailed policies and procedures…)

…and then push these out to all (to be ‘standardised’) and then…‘rinse and repeat’.

Not only does this fail to absorb client variety, it often (usually) frustrates it!

The opposite would be where each ‘locality’ functions, by design, as an autonomous unit – a group of peers who (are enabled to) take responsibility for the wellbeing of their local cohort of clients and helping them with their unique needs.

“Self-managed teams are far more productive than any other form of organising. There is a clear correlation between participation and productivity.” (Margaret Wheatley)

This creates that glorious (yet rare) combination of:

  • each client feeling that someone actually cares about them;
  • each front-line worker feeling like they have a meaningful job; and
  • each unique client situation (variety) being understood, with bespoke support provided (variety absorbing variety)

“Idleness, indifference and irresponsibility are healthy responses to absurd work…if you want someone to do a good job, give them a good job to do” (Frederick Herzberg)

We’ve now added the concept of autonomous units to deciding how best to help and support a cohort of autonomous clients.

So, if autonomous units are what’s required, where does that leave the concept of ‘organisation’?

Link 3: Autonomy enabling – Organisation…what should it be for?

This post is not suggesting that such autonomous units can, or even should, work on their own. It is saying that they pull for help from central support functions when they need to.

The (paradigm-shifting-ly) huge difference is that the front-line autonomous unit is the one leading what they need help with, rather than being dictated to.

They also decide whether any central support provided is actually helpful, and adopt or disregard it accordingly.

The onus is on the enabling centre to provide valuable support (as judged by those helping clients).

“The logical consequences of this way of viewing organisations, with its abundance of freedom of choice for its purposeful parts, unequivocally leads:

    • on the one hand, to the autonomy of the operating units and the people contained in it as purposeful entities; and
    • on the other hand, the remaining ‘upper part’ of the high-variety organisation as an enabling entity, actively involved in furthering the development of the autonomous unit and their people.” (Gerrit Broekstra)

A sense-check on the purpose of ‘organisation’:

“Hierarchical systems evolve from the bottom up. The purpose of the upper layers of the hierarchy is to serve the purposes of the lower layers…

The original purpose of a hierarchy is always to help its originating systems do their jobs better…

This is something …that…a greatly articulated hierarchy can easily forget.

Many systems are not meeting their goals because of malfunctioning hierarchies.” (Donnella Meadows)

Right, so we’ve worked our way through the concepts of self-determining clients (tick), autonomous units (tick) and an enabling (as opposed to controlling) centre (tick), but if this is sooo good, why doesn’t this eventuate?

That’s the subject of Part 2: the problem of changing from ‘this’ to ‘that’.


Addendum: Towards a picture…

If we’d like to ‘draw a picture’ of what the fundamentals of an effective people-centred system might look like, whilst remembering that “all models are wrong, some are useful” (George Box),

Then here’s an attempt from me…

I’ll build it up in three stages:

Picture 1 – The core:

1. The client (in green) is at the centre, along with the principle of self-determination (a.k.a. autonomy). It is about helping them on their journey, not (attempts at) pushing them through ours.

2. Their family/ Whānau and friends (in yellow) surround them, in recognition that:

  • no one is an island. The client exists within a social structure (for good, and sometimes, not so good)
  • to effectively support a client, we need to understand, contextualise and appropriately leverage their social network. This includes helping the client do the same. This might be the most powerful thing we can do.

3. The helper(s) (in blue) directly working with the client (‘value creating’). Their aim should be to create, and retain, a ‘working alliance’, in which there is mutual trust and respect. This will be about:

  • active/ reflective listening (truly seeing the world from the client’s point of view); and then
  • supporting the client through their journey, including resolving their transactional and process needs along the way

In doing this, we shouldn’t expect that helper(s) need to know everything. We would hope that they can easily ‘pull’ knowledge (from a useful source) as and when they need it. Note the deliberate choice of the word knowledge, rather than ‘policies and procedures’.

Picture 2 – adding support ‘in the work’:

We’ve now added a support ring around the core.

4. Local support (also in blue) that support the value creating workers in helping clients. Their aim is to be ‘in the work’, to observe the work as it happens, to be pulled ‘live’ as and when the value creating worker hits an obstacle.

 Such a pull may result in:

    • developing the capability of the helper (‘in the moment’ experiential learning); and/or
    • capturing evidence of obstacles outside of their control

5. Accessible help (in red) which represent those things that naturally sit outside the capability and/or capacity of local support.

It (deliberately) isn’t worded ‘available products and services’ because this isn’t the nub of what’s required. Sure, there might be a set of services available to be utilised, but it is up to the local team (with the client) to determine what to pull for, and when.

Further, the client isn’t being ‘referred over to’ the help. The help is being pulled into the client and their value creating worker…. who will also consider whether it is working for them or not.

Picture 3 – adding the enablement of those in the work:

6. Central roles (in purple) whose whole purpose is to enable those working with clients. They don’t attempt to control. Rather, they enable when they are pulled for help in removing obstacles in the way. This is a drastic change to the conventional central function.

The locus of control is with those directly helping the client.

An enabling response might include a focus on developing any of:

    • the knowledge available;
    • the tools (such as financial and technology support);
    • the accessible help (such as adding/ linking to new services, making them more flexible,…);
    • the capability of those helping clients (and those supporting this).

A note re. ‘Delivery engine’: Many central functions of large organisations are working hard to become ‘Agile’. I’d concur that it is important to work on ‘how’ to deliver (efficiency). However, of more importance is ‘what’ to deliver (effectiveness).

So, whilst we would want an ‘Agile’ delivery engine, we want it to be delivering to enable (from pulls), not to control (via pushes).

Being ‘Agile’ might be necessary….but it’s by no means sufficient.

And this completes an ‘autonomy – autonomy support – autonomy enabling’ model.

Or (if you are a Kiwi who watches the NZ comedy quiz programme ‘7 Days’) …”and this is my picture”

Footnotes

1. A book reading journey for this post – for those that are interested:

  • I first came across the idea of different system types and the transformational importance of matching the appropriate organisational model from reading a brilliant Russell Ackoff essay in his book ‘Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management’. If you’d like to understand (or remind yourself of) this, then I wrote a post some years back: “Oh, so that’s why command and control doesn’t work very well!” Today’s post picks up where the ‘what might that [social] model look like?’ question posed at the end left off.
  • Some years back I read Hope and Fraser’s 2003 book ‘Beyond Budgeting’, which gave me an initial introduction to Jan Wallander and his wonderful thinking in respect of how best to run a large service system for the good of clients, and employees. If you’d like a bit of an introduction to Wallander and his different thinking then I wrote about him here: Back to that ‘Profit Sharing’ Nirvana
  • This book led me to Gerrit Broekstra’s 2014 book titled ‘Building high-performance, high-trust organisations: Decentralisation 2.0’. This gets into some meaty understanding of the ‘what and why’ of a different model. Broekstra refers to the model as an ‘autonomy and enabling’ paradigm.
  • I was on a parallel path when I read Edward Deci’s ‘Why we do what we do’, which introduced me to self-determination theory and the hugely important concept of autonomy support.
  • I had original come across Deci from reading Alfie Kohn’s ‘Punished by Rewards’.
  • I then managed to get hold of Jan Wallander’s 2003 book ‘Decentralisation – why and how to make it work’, which nicely got me into the nuts and bolts of how he successfully led the change of a service system from centrally controlled to autonomous units. [This is the subject of my ‘Part 2’ post]
  • I also read Hilary Cottam’s 2018 book ‘Radical’ which cemented my thinking in respect of the need to create relational (rather than transactional) systems when we are trying to help people help themselves.
  • I then read Miller and Rollnick’s book on Motivational Interviewing (3rd Edition) which also connects extremely well.
  • And Motivational interviewing fits well with Gerard Egan’s book ‘The Skilled Helper’.

And this all comes together into an ‘Autonomy – Autonomy support – Autonomy enabling’ logic. Now you know why I was struggling to put something into a single post.

2. Clients, not customers: See footnote on my previous post for a comment on the difference

3. Person-centred system: I believe that the root of this phrase is Carl Roger’s person-centred approach.

4. Service system archetypes: Stuart Corrigan’s 2012 little book ‘The need for change’ was the first time I read about service archetypes. This thinking has been refined/ matured by others since then. Also reference Hillary Cottam and her setting out relational systems.

5. Re. people-centred/ relational: Amusingly (to me), many ‘for profit’ consumer businesses are desperate to be relational with us…even though they are, by their nature, transactional or process system archetypes. They want to forge a relationship with us (their customers) and yet we don’t want it! Think about that communications/ entertainment provider – they’ve often invested millions in expensive ‘Customer Relationship Management’ (CRM) technology that remembers your birthday!

6. Systems within systems: A tricky thing about people-centred systems is that they are likely to involve transactional and process sub-sets within. The important bit (I think) is to realise that the people-centred (relational) system is the master, and transactions and processes are its servant…. they aren’t separate.

A social system example: Let’s imagine that I am working relationally with a client on their journey.

  • Whilst doing so, they might move address – it should (probably) be a single and simple transaction to handle this change in circumstances.
  • Further, my relational work might lead to the client wanting help to, say, gain a qualification – this should be a smooth process to set up and then help them to achieve.

Both the transaction and the process sit within the relational journey of helping them better lead their lives (whatever that means for them). Here’s a diagram that hopefully visualises these words:

Autonomy Support

Tree of handsOver my years of reading and experiential learning, I’ve understood that there are three fundamental elements relevant to a human being’s psychological well-being1:

  • Competency;
  • Autonomy; and
  • Relatedness

Competency (‘sense of efficacy’) refers to our need to produce desirable outcomes; to be effective whilst experiencing an agreeable level of challenge in doing so; and to experience mastery. Basically, we want to be good at stuff, and we like getting better at it.

Autonomy (‘sense of volition’) refers to our need to feel ownership of our actions; to perceive that we have choices and can self-determine what to do and/or how to do it. As per my previous post (The comedy of…), the opposite of autonomy is control. Put simply, autonomy is the freedom to decide for yourself.

Relatedness (‘sense of caring relationships’) refers to our need to feel connected with others; to care about, and be cared about by, others without ulterior motives.

Together, these three are what makes life meaningful. It follows that they are necessary for meaningful work to occur and should therefore be front-and-centre for anyone (and everyone) trying to design an effective management system.

  • If you get this right, then just wow, what a place to work!
  • If you get it wrong… no prizes for guessing what that might look like.

I want to focus this post in on the autonomy piece, and how those in management positions can (and should) interact:

What’s so good about this ‘autonomy’ malarkey?

Edward Deci writes that:

When autonomous, people are fully willing to do what they are doing, and they embrace the activity with a sense of interest and commitment. Their actions emanate from their true sense of self, so they are being authentic.”

Autonomy fuels growth and health, because it allows people to experience themselves as themselves, as the initiator of their own actions. The person who feels competent and autonomous, who directs his or her own life, is immeasurably better off than a person who does not.”

Now that’s going to be a powerful force if we can create the conditions for it to occur!

“The key to whether people are living autonomously is whether they feel, deep within themselves, that their actions are their own choice…The main thing about meaningful choice is that it engenders willingness.”

I should note that there are whole bodies of research performed over decades that powerfully back these statements up.

Being in a ‘one up’ position

Deci uses the ‘one up’ language to refer to a person having a role ‘one up’ a hierarchy in respect of another. It applies across many situations, including:

  • a parent/ guardian to a child;
  • a teacher to a student;
  • a manager to a direct report; and
  • a ‘case manager’ to a client

I’m particularly interested in the last scenario. There are heaps of public sector roles in which someone in (what can generically be referred to as) a case management position has the goal of assisting their client to get to, and stay in, a much better place.

Examples include:

  • a probation/corrections officer with a prisoner
  • a nurse/medical worker with a patient
  • social workers and benefits officers with their clients
  • ….and on and on and on

A ‘one up’ working with their client

A conventional approach to case management is often one of control. It starts with a prescription (“I’m the expert here – this is what’s needed”) and then direction (“and therefore this is what you need to do”).

Deci writes that there are two potential responses to control – compliance or defiance.

The problem with compliance is that the person isn’t actually doing it for themselves, they are ‘going through the motions’. Any outcome is most likely to be superficial, short-lived and requiring of continual (and potentially escalating) maintenance.

..and the (rather obvious) problem with defiance is that you’ve got them running in the wrong direction!

“Compliance produces change that is not likely to be maintained, and defiance blocks change in the first place.”

There are many people out there that distinctly dislike attempting to control others and go in the other direction of permissiveness – i.e. letting people ‘get away with [whatever they want]’. This isn’t healthy – for the client, the system or society. There is a need for a degree of structure, with limits and consequences.

Control spectrum 1

The risks2 of operating anywhere on the control spectrum include: undesirable and/or ineffective behaviours; a lack of personal responsibility; and the creation of dependency (on the system).

Introducing the concept of ‘Autonomy Support’

Neither control nor permissiveness are what’s needed for people/clients to achieve meaningful and sustained outcomes. Instead, we need to adopt a totally new orientation that is perpendicular to (i.e. removed from) the control spectrum.

Deci introduces:

Autonomy Support [as] a personal orientation you take toward other people.

It requires being able to take their perspective – being able to see the world as they see it. It thus allows you to understand why they want what they want and why they do what they do.

As an autonomy supportive [Case Manager], you would be building an alliance with your [Client] and you would engage new situations from that perspective.”

Put simply, Autonomy Support starts from the position that we ‘get’ that a person’s autonomy is key, and therefore our role is to support (nurture, enable, and enhance) a client’s ability to ‘work it out and/or do it for themselves’. This might take some up-front time and effort, but it is undeniably worthwhile.

Control spectrum 2

Right, so that sounds lovely, but how do we go about it?!

How to promote autonomy

The following diagram is my summary of the key points from Deci’s work, which I’ll then attempt to explain and open up. It represents the dynamic collaboration between two people (the person and a ‘one-up’):

Autonomy Support from Paint

The two prominent points are that:

  • The most important role of the ‘one up’ is to fully and continually understand (the situation, the context, the immediate and emergent needs, what really matters and so on); and
  • most important for the person/client is to feel like they are in control (autonomous), and this will be achieved through the ‘one up’ providing them with real and meaningful choice.

…but, as you can see, there’s more to it than this. Taking each piece in turn:

Understanding: “to relate to others as human beings, as active agents worthy of support, rather than as objects to be manipulated…It begins with listening openly.”

Put another way, if we don’t really understand what’s going on, how on earth can we expect to help them get to where they need to be? If we merely assume, judge and cajole, we will most likely make matters (much) worse.

Knowledge: This point refers to the person’s/client’s knowledge. If we are going to provide them with choice, then it is our responsibility to ensure they have the necessary knowledge to reasonably decide. It would be unfair not to do so!

Choice: This is perhaps the central point but there are some clarifications to be made:

  • In some situations, we may not be able to allow choice in the ‘what’. If this is the case, we should turn to providing choice about the ‘how’ to go about the what.
  • Sometimes the offering of choice isn’t appropriate…HOWEVER, we need to be very careful that we haven’t conveniently ‘presumed’ this simply to control.

Deci notes that a usual critique is that ‘[my person/client] doesn’t want the choice – they want to be told what to do’. He goes on to write that:

“If [this is true] it is because people have been pushed to that point by being overly controlled in the past.

If you control people enough, they may begin to act is if they want to be controlled. [This is] a self-protection strategy…

People adapt to being controlled and act as if they don’t want the very thing that is integral to their nature – namely, the opportunity to be autonomous. They probably fear that they will be evaluated – perhaps even punished – if they make the ‘wrong’ choice. And they may well be.

Being autonomy supportive can be very difficult, especially with people who are accustomed to being controlled…we have to be patient…to work with [them] to reawaken what is basic to their nature and what will almost surely lead to more positive results.”

Limits: Remembering that we aren’t about permissiveness, we will need to be clear on societal limits to a person’s choices and actions.

“Supporting autonomy does not mean condoning irresponsibility, nor does it mean allowing people to engage in dangerous or harmful acts. Central to promoting autonomy is encouraging people to understand where their rights end and others’ rights begin. Setting limits is a way of communicating about people’s rights and about constraints that exist in the social world. As such, it helps people to learn to be responsible in making their choices.”

Some considerations in setting limits:

  • The person/client should (where possible) be involved in setting the limits, rather than having them unilaterally imposed upon them
  • The reasoning for any limits needs to be well understood by the person/ client, together with the likely consequences of breaking them
  • We should aim to keep limits as wide as possible, and allow choice within them
  • Limits should be communicated in factual, rather than controlling, language

Consequences: “Once limits are set and the consequences communicated, it is important to follow through, else one is undermining one’s own credibility.”

Some key points on consequences:

  • Consequences must be appropriate to any lapses or contraventions. This MUSTN’T be about punishment or attempting control. It should be about encouraging responsibility
  • The person/ client should be free to choose whether they stay within the set limits…and then experience the (previously communicated) outcomes of whether they do or don’t.
  • However, if we (the ‘one up’) don’t follow through, we are really back at permissiveness.

“…it is easy to confuse autonomy support with permissiveness [because] people find it hard to admit that they are being permissive, so they mis-portray their permissive behaviour as autonomy support.

Permissiveness is easy, but autonomy support is hard [yet ultimately rewarding] work”

Control spectrum 3

Reset and repeat: and finally, if and when a person/ client chooses a given course direction (whatever direction this may be), we are dynamically back at understanding.

We don’t judge a client for their choices, we work hard at understanding more deeply why they made them, so that we can go round the ‘autonomy support’ loop until we and they succeed.

In Summary:

It’s not about saying ‘No’ (Control) or ‘Yes’ (Permissive)…it’s about moving from an overly simplistic view and on to real understanding and valuable human interactions.

It may be hard (in the short term) but hugely effective (over time). Conversely, we may be surprised at how easy it is – many a client is just stuck, waiting to be understood!

Future Linkages from this post:

I’ve got a couple of related topics that should ‘dangle’ off this post. They are:

  • ‘Motivational Interviewing’: Discussing a method that fits with equipping those in case management roles with the skills to be autonomy supportive; and
  • ‘Decentralisation 2.0’: Discussing how the central and support functions of large service organisations should interact with their sites to enable, rather than (attempt to) control.

I haven’t written them yet…but I hope to find the time to do so.

Footnotes

1. These three elements are central to Deci and Ryan’s ‘Self Determination Theory’

2. These risks apply equally to the person/client and the ‘one up’ person/ case manager!

3. All quotes from Deci in this post come from his highly readable book titled “Why we do what we do”

The comedy of…

100% Authentic…being asked (or, worse, told) to be authentic.

I’ve long had a sneaky suspicion that having to tell yourself (internalising), or wanting to proclaim to others (externalising), that you are ‘being authentic’ suggests that something else is going on.

What is authenticity?

I’ve noticed a fair amount of focus on the rather interesting ‘authenticity’ word within the organisational world over the last few years and yet I’ve often felt a deep discomfort about its (mis)use.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I was uncomfortable. A recent read of Edward Deci’s work1 (I think) assists:

Authenticity necessitates behaving autonomously, for it means to be the author of one’s actions – acting in accordance with one’s true inner self.

The key to understanding autonomy, authenticity, and self is the psychological process called integration. Various aspects of a person’s psyche differ in the degree to which they have been integrated or brought into harmony with the person’s innate, core self.

Only when the processes that initiate and regulate an action are integrated aspects of one’s self would the behaviour be autonomous and the person, authentic. It is in this sense that to be authentic is to be true to one’s self.” (Deci)

Wow, that sounds a bit deep! But the key point is that authenticity is reliant on autonomy.

The opposite – control

It’s worth stating that the opposite of ‘autonomy’ is ‘control’ and, as such, we can understand human behaviour in terms of whether it is autonomous or controlled.

To be controlled means to act because one is being pressured. When controlled, people act without a sense of personal endorsement. Their behaviour is not an expression of the self, for the self has been subjugated to the controls. In this condition, people can reasonably be described as alienated2.” (Deci)

Deci goes on to identify the two types of controlled behaviour (i.e. responses to control) as:

  • Compliance; or
  • Defiance

If you are doing something out of a sense of ‘having to’ rather than ‘choosing to’ then you aren’t acting autonomously.

Conversely (and perhaps not so obvious), if you are not doing something (or doing something else) in order to defy, you are also not acting autonomously – your defiance is a result of an attempted control, rather than your true volition.

The meaning of autonomy

So, if autonomy is key, I should make clear as to what is (and is not) meant by Deci when using the ‘autonomy’ word.

To be autonomous means to act in accord with one’s self – it means feeling free and volitional in one’s actions. When autonomous, people are fully willing to do what they are doing, and they embrace the activity with a sense of interest and commitment. Their actions emanate from their true sense of self, so they are being authentic.” (Deci)

The Point

 “Choice is the key to self-determination and authenticity.” (Deci)

It follows that if you are being controlled (don’t have free choice), then you won’t be truly authentic.

Don’t ask or tell me to ‘be authentic’. This doesn’t make sense!

Further, if you find yourself wanting to add a ‘this is me being authentic’ proviso within your oral or written word then it might be worth thinking about why you consider this to be necessary, and what this means.


Addendum: clearing up a few misunderstanding

Deci identifies a couple of misunderstandings regarding authenticity and the ‘self’ which need to be cleared up:

  1. Equating ‘self’ with ‘person’ and in so doing, suggesting a problem of being ‘absorbed with the self’; and
  2. Confusing autonomy (and freedom) with independence (and aloneness)

Regarding Misunderstanding 1: Some social commentators have suggested a (problematic) narcissistic preoccupation with the self within some western cultures. Deci sets out how this is a misunderstanding:

Narcissism involves desperately seeking affirmation from others. It involves an outward focus – a concern with what others think – and that focus takes people away from their true self.

The narcissistic preoccupation results not from people’s being aligned with the self but from having lost contact with it…

…Narcissism is not the result of authenticity or self-determination, it is their antithesis.” (Deci)

Regarding Misunderstanding 2: Other social critics suggest that autonomy leads to separation. Deci clears up this misunderstanding as follows:

“…the misconception that when people come into fuller contact with themselves, when they become freer in their functioning, when they unhook themselves from society’s controls, they will opt for isolation over connectedness. But there is no evidence for that. Quite the contrary, as people become more authentic, as they develop greater capacity for autonomous self-regulation, they also become capable of a deeper relatedness to others.” (Deci)

(As I understand it) humans can be summarised as having three innate psychological needs: competence3, autonomy and relatedness. Put simply, autonomy and relatedness (or its opposite, independence) are very different concepts.

Deci points out that I can be:

  • Independent and autonomous (to freely not rely on others); or
  • Independent and controlled (to feel forced not to rely on others)

Footnotes

1. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan are two of my giants – and I’ve just added a ‘giant’ record onto this blog for them. Their research on motivation (and the resulting ‘self-determination theory’) has been ground-breaking for decades.

2. Alienation: “The concept of alienation…philosophically means to be separated from one’s self.” (Deci)

3. Competence: This has been expressed by others as ‘the desire for mastery’

4. All quotes in this post come from the highly readable “Why we do what we do” by Edward Deci.

I’m hoping to find the time to write some more in this area, particularly regarding what Deci explains as ‘autonomy support’. I believe that this is a hugely important concept for anyone and everyone who is trying to help others.