Personal Autonomy and the Manipulated Follower

On this New Year’s Day, it seems important to reach out and speak to a problem that concerns me in our broader society, something that I would like to see changed, and that I see people agitating to change, sometimes effectively and sometimes, in my opinion, misguidedly.

Some months ago, a colleague posted an emphatic blog about the inherent relationship between leadership and manipulation, specifically, “nothing is wrong with manipulation if it is done with a pure heart and with the best interest of the other party in mind.”  My response to this kind of argument was something along the lines of revulsion.  I prefer the model of voluntary and informed commitment on the part of all workers, but also believe that when you sign on to an organization or a project, often, important assumptions never get discussed.

For instance, in one organization I’ve been working with, an explicit discussion of the importance of showing up to the office on time and prepared to participate in the daily Scrum, an activity which supports Team self-organization and is held in that organization at 9:30am, needed to occur.  In some organizations, arriving by 8am is still traditional.  The lack of discussion of assumptions that the organization has with regard to the individual, and vice versa, can give rise to organizational defensive routines, “strategic” communication, and unhelpful habits that lead to the evolution of a philosophy that manipulation, particularly covert or coercive types of manipulation, are within the purview of people charged with such organizational dirty work.  Often these people are called managers of one sort or another.  I see an approach which allows all individuals in the work group to explore and align their own sense of autonomy and personal agency with the needs and goals of the organization, to the extent that is possible.

To elaborate:  I want you to have all your autonomy, full personal agency, and I want me to have mine, too.  Every action or decision—or non-decision—is an act of choosing and expression of free will.  Some people go to great lengths to preserve and express their free will.  The caging of the spirit is more effective than the caging of the man or woman.  And, yet, at every turn it sometimes seems that we are asked to surrender autonomy and personal agency.  Particularly this is so in terms of seeking what we think of as safety and security, abstractions which can lead us into very unsafe and insecure circumstances.

If we make a bargain—I will give up some of my autonomy and personal agency in exchange for a certain sense of safety and security provided by you and you will do the same—we simultaneously enact understandings that, first, we are separate, second, that one of us has a portion of safety and security to confer upon the other, and, third, that personal autonomy and personal agency are appropriate currency with which to purchase safety and security.  Some things, commonly called “acts of God” or the vagaries of the market can be difficult to protect ourselves against.  And, the effort to do so completely can diminish the quality of our living to the point that it becomes mere existence.

But, if in desiring for you the greatest possible autonomy and personal agency, I refuse to accept them as currency and refuse to sell to you any portion of safety or security for such currency but instead show you how to enact autonomy and live out your personal agency, then, in so doing, we have each given the other a great gift through creating value in terms of human capacity that was not there before.  You are not diminished by compromising yourself to purchase safety; I learn one more human’s way of working out Self.  It is not necessarily so that I know any more of how to use your autonomy and personal agency to create your Self in a manner that results in the greatest safety and security for the human system we are both part of, but what I might be able to do is travel with you to help find the ethical guideposts at which a turn one way or another informs the quality of your journey which you are making with all of us.

There exists a belief that management of human beings in businesses and organizations requires—de facto—manipulation.  This seems a bit odd to me:  it seems to bespeak an assumption that I know what is best for you simply based on the nature of my role in relation to yours—itself an interesting example of classism though it may benignly manifest itself as noblesse oblige.  Dee Hock in his article “The Art of Chaordic Leadership” says “A true leader cannot be bound to lead.  A true follower cannot be bound to follow.”  The kind of management that relies on manipulation seems to me to be an abdication of the role of leader and a manifestation of a certain disrespect for the other human beings upon whom he would act.

At the same time, the business of going to work and performing a service or activity in exchange for money, which is an abstraction of life energy, is in itself an act of free will which implies some level of willingness to contract with an organization to do exactly that—perform a service or activity.  Some level of willingness to contribute to the goals of the organization is implied in accepting compensation for your services.  However, abdication of personal responsibility for your actions is not part of that bargain and so unthinkingly transferring personal agency to the organization or your colleagues in the organization is unwise at best.

It may be necessary for us to talk together early on as we work together so that we can be clear to what extent the exercise of your autonomy and personal agency naturally aligns with fulfilling the potential of your contribution to the organization or the projects and activities we do together.  It could be that we discover there is not sufficient alignment for it to make sense for us to go forward.  But, I would rather see you have the opportunity to fulfill the mission of working out who you are through what you do than to use subterfuge and manipulation as forcing factors for your compliance with an agenda that is largely mine:  my unrevealed agenda as such a manager narrows the range of options through which we might achieve the goals of the activities we do together.

R. K. Greenleaf, the creator of the theory of servant leadership, wrote:

Some coercive power is overt and brutal.  Some is covert and subtly manipulative. The former is open and acknowledged, the later is insidious and hard to detect.  Most of us are more coerced than we know.  We need to be more alert in order to know, and we also need to acknowledge that, in an imperfect world, authority backed up by power is still necessary because we just don’t know a better way.  We may one day find one.  It is worth searching for.  Part of our dilemma is that all leadership is to some extent, manipulative.  Those who follow must be strong!

Greenleaf wrote this paragraph in a monograph entitled “The Servant as Leader” published in 1969 and now available in a compilation titled Servant Leadership:  A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness.  Over these last ten years people in the knowledge creation business, especially software, have been experimenting with methods of leading that engender leadership in individual contributors and make them full partners in their own work life destinies.  This has commonly been called the agile movement and includes methods and frameworks such as Scrum, XP, Kanban, Feature Driven Development and so on.

Those who follow must be strong! Manipulation makes a tool of a human being, instantiating what ethicists call utilitarianism, and thereby disempowers and, in the worst cases, infantilizes, the manipulated human tools.  Rather than resorting to utilitarianism, it makes sense to me, from both a social and business perspective, to insist on highly collaborative and, therefore, highly mutually responsible leadership which can result in nurturing leadership broadly and deeply throughout the organization.  Leaders lead best when they create more strong leaders and facilitate the instantiation of work process systems that build strong, ethical leadership across the organization.

Truly, we are all better off if those who follow are strong.  What remains to be agreed, is what strength is, and how followers best attain this state.

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