Study: People Want Power Because They Want Autonomy

An article from The Atlantic describing a study that reveals autonomy is, almost entirely, the reason people like to have power. This accords very well with the predictions of self-determination theory.

Power (in the most meaningful sense of the word) is pretty much the same thing as autonomy, I think: it’s about feeling that you are in control of your life, regardless of whether that feeling is justified. This suggests that some forms of what we generally recognize as power (ie. positions of authority, with control over what others do) might not be so great, inasmuch as the accompanying responsibilities can considerably reduce autonomy. Those in middle management, myself incuded, are in a great many ways less autonomous than those over whom they have purported power, in part because of their responsibility to those they lead, and in part due to their accountability to those with greater power. I’m guessing that the same is true right up to leaders of institutions, who are accountable to governments and other funding bodies in much the same way as those lower in the pecking order are accountable to them.

For optimal happiness, organizational hierarchies (not those that occur in natural systems but that are designed by humans) are an inherently weak idea, most notably because they must always be antagonistic to autonomy. They survive as a reasonably effective compromise made to make  organizations and societies function like machines: indeed, they are one of our most fundamental enabling technologies. They are the main way that large groups of people can efficiently live in peace and prosperity together. Hierarchies are responsible for many good things, a foundational technology on which much of human society, culture and technology is based, without which we would likely still be in the trees. But it is important to remember that they are just technologies: they are inventions that can be improved upon and that could easily be superceded by better inventions. Democratic governance was likely the last major successful innovation in the technology, but it doesn’t solve many of the inherent weaknesses. For the most part, the inevitable inefficiencies, filtering of information and, above all, diminution of intrinsic motivation make organizational hierarchies a deeply flawed solution to the problems of large scale human coordination that they are designed to solve.

With modern technologies, especially those involved in and emerging from ubiquitous communication and availability of knowledge, we can and should do better than hierarchies. I am increasingly intrigued by and drawn to the model of The Morning Star Company, that thrives without hierarchies, where everyone, from temporary tomato pickers to the CEO, is a manager, and where power is not given but taken as a natural right. What’s remarkable about it is not so much the pattern (which is not unlike that of traditional academia and many other organizations and social forms) but the fact that the pattern works really well.


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I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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