You’ve been where I was. American Airlines flight late leaving due to A/C problems. Nears Dallas as bad storms hit. Circling, bumping, circling. Diversion to Austin. Kept on tarmac, no deplaning, A/C still not functioning.

Tracking what’s happening to Dallas-Albuquerque connecting flight. Then an email saying it’s canceled. Still on Austin tarmac. 90 minutes later, 3:17 p.m., another email that I’ve been rebooked for the following night, from Dallas, to Phoenix, to Albuquerque.

No luck finding AA alternatives and no help from airline, despite having nearly 2 million miles with them. A Southwest Airlines flight, Austin-Albuquerque, scheduled to leave 9:25 p.m. Booked it. Yes, it would cost over $400. No idea if that would be reimbursed by American or the client. Grabbed my backpack and joined the folks deplaning onto buses, knowing that American would not let us back on nor release our luggage to us.

And this is where the unusual thing occurred. I saw what happened to my alternate self, the one who stayed on the plane, because for the next two days, American kept sending me emails as if I had never departed that flight. Her American plane at the gate, not allowing anyone to leave, until 8:15 p.m., when that flight was finally canceled. She sat on that plane through a terrible storm that came over Austin, a storm that looked to have tornados in it (I know because my real self was in the terminal watching it). And when my alternate self was allowed off the plane, she lived through multiple re-schedules and re-routings, sleeping one night in the Austin terminal and the next night in the Phoenix terminal, arriving in Albuquerque 2-1/2 days later.

I, the real me, reached my Albuquerque home at 1 a.m., with just a few hours delay on the Southwest flight. Over two days of my life not wasted.

Now, I could tell you about another flight where I made a similar decision, left a flight, rented a car, and drove from O’Hare to southern Indiana — and it was a mistake. The flight did eventually continue on, and if I had stayed with it, I would have reached my destination much earlier.

So my story (and others like it) is not about infallible judgment. Clearly I don’t have that (alas). It’s about the need to feel a sense of having some say over one’s life. A sense of control, probably not complete control, but at least a hand in the game.

In the face of uncertainty, where external forces seem to have strong and arbitrary impact on our lives, many of us need that feeling that we are at least trying to do something, trying to have some say over what happens to us.

Years ago researcher Richard de Charms called people who feel they control their destiny “Origins” and those who feel powerless to control theirs “Pawns.” I am writing this in July 2020. With coronavirus, jobs disappearing, long-standing racism and social disparities, and shrinking savings, among other problems, we find ourselves feeling like Pawns. Government orders to shelter in place, to wear masks, to socially distance – or, on the other hand, to open schools and to return to work in environments that may increase contagion – all  add to the feeling of being Pawns.  We see this in the behaviors of some people, such as looking for magic leaders to save them. We also see people trying to feel like Origins, trying to have a sense of control even if their behavior choices may look to us more harmful than helpful.

In the workplace, Origins contribute new perspectives, initiative, energy, solutions, innovation and leadership. They can also be a pain, if they lack such things as interpersonal skills, situational understanding, or organizational commitment. Because of that, other people sometimes respond to Origin’s behaviors negatively, even punishingly.

Here’s another phrase to know: “learned helplessness.” Psychologist Martin Seligman found that we may begin to think that outcomes are uncontrollable by us if we encounter repeated unavoidable negative experiences. If such experiences lead us to learn to think that way, we may become passively accepting of situations, even when we could take effective steps to change them. We’ve learned to think we are helpless and to act accordingly. Essentially, repeated experiences may teach people, even people who were Origins, to view themselves and their situations as Pawns.

  • “I’m stuck on this plane, and there’s nothing I can do about the situation. I just have to let American Airlines take care of me.”
  • “We’re stuck with this unending virus, I’m afraid I’ll lose my job if I don’t do exactly what they tell me to do, I’m afraid of what the police might do to my son, I can’t afford to keep my kids at home if the schools reopen, I miss my friends, there’s nothing I can do about any of this.”

We want coworkers who take smart initiative. We want them to propose and implement good solutions. So what do we do for ourselves to be Origins? What do we do for each other to support effective Origin behavior at work?

Well, first of all, here’s some more research. Edward Deci, Richard Ryan, and others have studied “autonomous motivation” vs. “controlled motivation” in various settings, including work. Autonomous motivation is typified by acting with a complete sense of willingness, volition and choice. I risk oversimplifying a complex field of research, but basically autonomous motivation is tied to feeling like an Origin while controlled motivation is tied to feeling like a Pawn. Autonomous motivation has been shown to positively correlate with the outcomes of productivity and well-being. More specifically, studies have shown positive relationships between autonomous motivation and more job satisfaction, less burnout, better physical and mental health, less turnover intent, less actual turnover, better performance, more knowledge-sharing, more connection to the organization, less stress despite high job demands, more enjoyment of the work itself, more effort, and more idea input. Controlled motivation tends to be related to the opposite outcomes.

Okay, let’s reword the earlier questions. Now, let’s ask, what do we do for ourselves and each other to support autonomous motivation and acting like Origins? How can we be autonomy supportive within work groups? How can we avoid making people feel like Pawns?

Here’s some of what we can do:

  • Acknowledge peoples’ perspectives by showing understanding, interest, and curiosity
  • Share information and explain rationale – purpose, circumstances, reasoning, prior attempts – when recruiting someone to a task; then ask for their questions and input regarding what you’ve shared
  • Offer choices and ask people to think through the pros and cons, as well as to generate additional choices
  • Ask open questions to help others think through their work, rather than handing out advice and commands
  • Provide informational feedback that allows the individual to understand behavior-outcome relationships and leaves to them the decision of what to do about it
  • Encourage initiation – proposing what to do, originating actions, taking charge
  • Team with people to structure work that feels optimally challenging to them – not too hard, not too easy, but just right for demonstrating and developing competence
  • Model thinking like an origin, taking responsibility for your own actions and outcomes
  • Carefully phrase praise to focus on the individual’s decisions and actions, rather than obedience
  • If someone is clearly showing learned helplessness and acting like a pawn, don’t expect overnight change. It took a lot of experiences to put them in that place. Use baby steps, perhaps following the “Situational Leadership” models of Hersey and/or Blanchard. If the situation is severe, consult with Human Resources or other experts about how to help or get help.
  • And absolutely refrain from and stop others from using bullying, demeaning, discriminatory, isolating, shaming, exclusionary, punishing, and every other negative type of behavior

Writing a list is easy. Each of these items is worth individual study, techniques, and practice. In later blogs, we will focus on different parts of the list. In addition, autonomy is one of three key needs that Deci & Ryan have identified, and later blogs will add information about the other two, competence and relatedness.

But for now, let’s return to my opening story about that American Airlines flight. First of all, for whatever reasons in my personality and past experiences, I tend to err on the side of being an Origin rather than a Pawn (although not always). But that aside, just imagine if American had offered my fellow passengers and me acknowledgement, rationale, and choices, with a touch of modeling responsibility. “We suspect you’re feeling uncertain right now, wondering what’s going to happen with the remainder of your trip. We feel the same way. Given the uncertainty, here are your options as we know them. Perhaps you’ll have some more ideas as well. You can choose to stay on this plane so that if we get cleared to take off, you’ll be sure to go on to Dallas. Or you can choose to go into the air-conditioned terminal to stretch, get something to eat, and possibly check to see what’s happening with other flights. Know that if we get clearance, we’ll not delay in order for you to get back on the plane; we and your checked luggage will have to leave without you if you’re not here with us. Another option for you would be to leave the airport, rent a car and go to your final destination; if so, please tell someone at American, and, again, your luggage will remain on this flight and go to wherever you checked it to. We do appreciate your being with us, we’re sorry that our mechanical problem at the start of the flight put us all into Texas during these storms, and we understand whatever choice you make.”

Hmmm. I bet I’d have more American miles and fewer Southwest miles today if I’d heard that. I probably would have made the same choices I did, but they might not have received the scathing letter I sent them a few days later.

As we like to comment, “Just sayin’.”

Deb Pettry