Control. We love it. We need it. And not just the so-called Type A people — we all need it. Especially when there is more to us than just ourselves. As life gets full, with spouses, children, and/or aging relatives who depend on us, feeling in control (or out of control) can shape how we feel about life. While there may be a lot of things outside of our control, work doesn’t have to be one of them.
We all want autonomy
Maybe a better word than “control” is “autonomy” — the ability to have at least some sway over your direction, how you spend your time, or where you spend it. It has to do with self-direction, self-determination, even our intrinsic motivation. It’s about being able to make choices and act on them. It’s the difference between doing something of your own accord, rather than out of micromanagement, fear, business politics, the super fun list goes on.
Whatever you want to call it, an abundance of science clearly shows the positives that come with autonomy — job satisfaction, productivity and engagement, and general happiness. Autonomy is about where we work (from home, office or coffee shops,) when we work (late start for engineers, anyone?), and with whom we work (having a friend at work is like earning $100,000 more each year). Savoring some level of autonomy in your work can be the difference between showing up early because you want to, and showing up late, wishing you just stayed in bed anyway.
We all want to belong
There’s a part of everyone (even the most independent, I-only-work-in-coffee-shops-on-projects-I-choose consultants) who yearn to be part of something greater than ourselves. Call it the team gene, not because it’s actually genetic, but because it sounds lovely and almost rhymes.
Here’s the rub: autonomy isn’t everything. More than the ability to make our own decisions at work, we all want and need to belong. Belonging isn’t just collaboration with others; it’s feeling valued and respected as our authentic selves, while feeling connected to something bigger than ourselves. Research shows that belonging reduces stress and increases work motivation and performance. Kate Earle, Chief Learning Officer at Quiet Revolution, shared with me that “even introverts, who we know crave less stimulating environments and embrace solitude, need meaningful interaction with others to help bring their ideas to life”. At the neural level, scientific belonging expert Lauren Aguilar shares, we are “wired to belong.”
A real story: autonomy and belonging
My need for both autonomy and belonging is what drove me to start Forshay. In my first high-tech job, I worked for a company that sold high-speed DSL to individuals and companies. We’d sell you stuff so you could work from home, but our CEO didn’t want us to work from home. Talk about cognitive dissonance. I had very little autonomy across the board, and for a while, I gulped that down like a horse pill and marched on.
But then, everything changed for me in an instant. My brother was killed in a plane crash. He was only 37. I was 31 and eight months pregnant with my first baby. Suddenly, having some autonomy in my life was no longer a “nice to have” — I needed it like oxygen.
I became a zealot for “rethinking work and life”, and I found out I wasn’t alone. There was, and still is, a huge population of people who feel that they either don’t have the right amount of autonomy (my challenge with traditional corporate America), or the right amount of belonging (those who went freelance, or stepped out of work altogether, but didn’t want to).
Real examples: LinkedIn & Airbnb
The good news is, there are some leaders who are paying attention to the science and embracing their employees’ needs for both autonomy and belonging. Pat Wadors, from LinkedIn, was kind enough to sit with me last year for an interview on my Future of Work research. She shared stories of how LinkedIn is committed to understanding and making room for people to explicitly solve for both needs, and codified her learnings on belonging in this Harvard Business Review article. And for autonomy? She shared how LinkedIn is teaching managers how to inquire with their team members about what kind of autonomy is meaningful to them and fits the needs of the business. For example, a sales team may have significant autonomy of where they work, but the facilities team may want to vary their schedules.
Being fair is not being the same, it’s about setting the context for individuals and teams to have the conversation, and providing ongoing support to make choices that are win/win.
Another leader paving the way for humans to be their awesome, full human selves is Andrea Robb at Airbnb. As a company, belonging is central to Airbnb’s brand, both externally and internally — it’s a community of travelers seeking authentic local experiences and accommodations and a community of employees who mirror that company mission. Andrea started her role at Airbnb as a part-time independent consultant solving on her need for autonomy and quickly learned that Airbnb’s culture allowed her to have both autonomy and belonging. For autonomy, Airbnb encouraged her to manage her time around where and when she would do her best work, while explicitly creating belonging by “hosting me end-to-end as a person who they wanted to feel welcomed. They did not start with: Let me tell you about Airbnb and all that you need to know to be successful here. It was more about — who are you and what do you know that we don’t?” Andrea’s experience of belonging started with being seen and respected, and then connecting her work to the larger purpose of Airbnb.
To be sure, many more companies and leaders out there are paying attention. And our work is never done — there is always room for positive evolution. As Brene Brown said, “we are wired for struggle” and the key is choosing leaders who understand this and are creating space to solve it.
Having it all is the Future of Work, and leaders who solve on this faster than others will be the leaders never lacking in followers.
What do you need more of?
Need more autonomy? More belonging? Take a look at your own work, and consider which elements of work autonomy/belonging are most important to you. From there, negotiate on the mutual win. A lot of times, managers will see that the net positives for you are also benefits for them. For example, spending less time commuting, and more time with work colleagues who bring out your best work, can improve your performance — making both you and your executives more fulfilled.
But the first step is to ask. I triple-dog dare you (does that help?).
The daring of Brene Brown + badass negotiations strategy from Maggie Neale = one powerful combination.
Go make it real.