There’s a point of tension in our professional lives that’s often under-discussed, if not overlooked entirely. What professionals learn from their mentors, thought leaders, and bosses often pulls them in two different directions.
On the one hand, they hear about the values of being a team player — without the commitment of every employee, the founder’s vision would never get off the ground. On the other hand, they hear about the unrivaled power of being an independent thinker — without innovators who think outside the box and leverage their own unique qualities to create something new, how would businesses ever break through the status quo?
Here’s the catch: both of these philosophies are true for professionals at every rung of the ladder. This leaves us with an important question. How do we maintain our autonomy and unique qualities when our professional lives require working toward other people’s visions? Is there, so to speak, a contrarian-consensus balance much like there’s a work-life balance?
Are You Stuck on Dependency Autopilot?
An organized business is like a well-oiled machine, with each piece dependent on the next. Founders concede parts of their vision to investors and clients. Leaders create strategies to accomplish that vision. Employees make those strategies a reality. When everyone is personally dedicated to each other’s needs, this chain of dependency becomes an engine to effectuate great ideas and, consequently, great returns.
But that doesn’t always happen. As valuable as the “team player” mentality is, I’ve always worried that it implies individuals are making a personal sacrifice to keep the game going, that they’re a “cog in a machine.” This sets an unproductive tone for working, giving professionals little reason to do more than the bare minimum. They’ll fulfill their obligations but not enough to make a real impact or feel creatively enriched.
This is dependency autopilot. It’s business as usual, doing what’s expected on time and on budget, but never feeling as though you have skin in the game. If you go on like this for too long, the result is a sense of tedium and professional stagnation.
Local Innovation Unlocks Internal Motivation
The solution to dependency autopilot comes from a marriage of both philosophies: the team player who fulfills their part in the chain of dependency, and the individual innovator whose creativity and inspiration revolutionizes how their tasks are done. These philosophies aren’t mutually exclusive, and they’re at their most powerful when they coexist in each individual.
The first step to escaping dependency autopilot is to find the internal motivation necessary to overachieve. This comes from the recognition that everyone at every rung of the business ladder is carrying a burden that makes the entire enterprise possible. You have skin in the game, the business depends on you, and you have the agency to climb to the next rung. This is relevant for founders, leaders, and employees.
Once you recognize the two roles you must play, you infuse your work with a deeper sense of meaning and purpose, of dependence and independence. Maybe an entry-level employee won’t revolutionize their business’ overall strategy, but they can ask what obligations are local to them and break through the status quo for all who follow behind them. By becoming a “local innovator,” everyone retains the inspiration that comes from being independent while still fulfilling their typical obligations — only this time, with a deeper personal stake in the results.
Founders and leaders are just as susceptible to dependency autopilot, despite their aura of control. For founders, that means preserving or independently evolving your vision even when concessions must be made to investors, clients, or your team. On the other hand, founders must also manifest “founding moments” that change the course of the company.
For leaders, that means feeling personally accountable for translating the founder’s vision into actionable, representative strategies. Yet leaders must also leave room to inject their own ideas and personalities into their work so sparks can fly when their founder’s ideas collide with theirs.
To put it another way, all of our mentors were right, even if they were pulling us in different directions — something powerful happens when the team player and innovator combine. Becoming an invaluable member of any business, even your own, requires this dual mindset. By taking independent accountability for the slice of the business we’re responsible for, we infuse our activities with meaning. Next time you find yourself on autopilot, ask yourself, “What’s my contrarian-consensus balance?”
Also published here.