Six Sigma and more: Relational autonomy

David SchwinnMost people agree that motivation is important to success in both professional and personal life. In taking initiative with respect to supporting others, David Schwinn discusses what he calls “relational autonomy”—the ability to act to move toward chosen goals while recognizing that goals and actions toward those goals are influenced by context. Professionals, managers, and leaders in the Six Sigma efforts can move in this direction to give others creative freedom as they choose ways to do their work.

As my wife, Carole, was recently preparing to begin another chapter in our forthcoming book, The Transformational Workplace, she found out that one of the people we interviewed on my sabbatical last year had just won the International Children’s Peace Prize. Her name is Michaela (Chaeli) Mycroft. Here is her story.

Seven years ago, Chaeli was a nine-year-old child, born with cerebral palsy, who wanted nothing more than the greater degree of autonomy she could gain if she had a motorized wheel chair. A small group of kids ages six to twelve, including Chaeli’s sister, Erin, and three school friends, Tarryn, Justine, and Chelsea Terry, took on the mission of raising the money to purchase the chair. By creating and selling their own art work, they not only raised the money in just seven weeks, but launched the organization, the Chaeli Campaign, that now helps more than 3000 children with disabilities in South Africa and beyond to increase their own independence, autonomy, and self-sufficiency. In November 2011, at age 17, Chaeli and her crew traveled to Amsterdam where Chaeli received the prestigious International Children’s Peace Prize, presented to her by Nobel Peace Laureate, Mairead Maguire. On April 23, 2012, when the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates meets in Chicago, Chaeli will take the stage to receive that gathering’s Medal for Activism.

While all of this is a remarkable story, one of the most amazing things about Chaeli is a smile that can light up a room like few others. After we had the opportunity to sit down with Chaeli and the whole organization’s staff, which included the original crew, along with the girls’ parents, at their Plumstead headquarters near Cape Town, our spirits were lifted for days.

As we began to write about Chaeli and the Chaeli Campaign, Carole entitled the chapter, “Acting Independently.” We agreed that “acting autonomously” might be a better reflection of the theme. After considering the research that we had about our topic, I was struck by the idea of “relational autonomy,” which better describes the concept.

Relational autonomy is primarily a concept introduced by feminist researchers, following on Carol Gilligan’s work in moral development. Relational autonomy refers to the ability to pursue one’s own chosen goals and aspirations, while recognizing that the goals we choose and the actions we take are influenced by our social and political context. Thus, the ideal of autonomy in the workplace is certainly one that plays itself out quite differently in various cultures, from those that are more or less hierarchical, individualistic, or communitarian.

As I enthusiastically embraced this concept, Carole reminded me that, like most other characteristics, autonomy, taken to its extreme, can be pathological. So here are a few things to remember as we embrace autonomy. Consider the needs and goals of others, maintain our moral compass, tend to our own well-being, and avoid workaholism as we passionately pursue our own goals and aspirations.

I’ve come to believe life is always a balance, and that the balance most of us unconsciously choose is away from autonomy. That is why I think this theme is important. Harvard’s Teresa Amabile, who studies the impact of making progress toward meaningful work, has observed that autonomy—or the lack thereof‑-significantly impacts employee creativity. In an article titled, “Declaring Independence in the Workplace,” she wrote:

To be truly intrinsically motivated and to gain a sense of achievement when they do make progress, people need to have some say in their own work. What’s more, when employees have freedom in how to do the work, they are more creative. Two key aspects of autonomy are having the ability to make meaningful decisions in work and then feeling confident that — barring serious errors or dramatic shifts in conditions — those decisions will hold. If they often get overridden by management, people quickly lose the motivation to make any decision, which severely inhibits progress. Work gets delayed because people feel like they have to wait and ‘check in’ before they can begin or change anything. (

I think we, the people we work with, and our Six Sigma efforts deserve more relational autonomy. As professionals, managers, and leaders, we can move in that direction.

If you want to learn more about our sabbatical travels and our book-in-progress, check out our blog at

As always, I treasure your comments and questions. You can reach me by commenting below.

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