May 16, 2021 • 25M

Issue 136 Solving The Self-employment Paradox

Self-employment brings an enormous sense of personal freedom and autonomy, but an equally enormous sense of pressure and demand to deliver.

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Larry G. Maguire
The Sunday Letters Podcast is the weekly audio newsletter from organisational psychologist Larry Maguire on the meaning & purpose of daily work and our paradoxical relationship with it. We explore how we may break free from tiresome means-to-an-end labour and take command of their own working lives. Topics include solo working, careers, entrepreneurship, small business economics, society and culture. Content follows the written newsletter, which goes out to subscribers every Sunday.
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The guy was an asshole. His only ambition as far as I was concerned was to make me understand the extent of his importance and authority over me. Ever since the day I went against his explicit yet sub-optimal instructions, he was gunning for me. He would show me who was boss, why his shitty ideas were better than mine, and it made my working life miserable.

I put up with the arrangement for about twelve months until I couldn’t take it any more. I handed in my notice, and on my final day on the job, I punched him in the face, pinned him to the ground, and beat the living shit out of him for a good eight minutes… ok, I didn’t. But I wanted to. Such was the extent of the pressure and intimidation I felt from his presence. The horrible, miserable, useless can of piss that he was. He reminds me of Mr Huph in The Invincibles cartoon movie, only his skin was paler, his hair thinner, and his eyes beadier.

That’s the nature of the hierarchical workplace and the power of position to hide personal insecurity and fester narcissistic tendencies. We’re all narcissistic to some extent. We all want to be seen, to be noticed and acknowledged for our work. But sometimes, for some people, that need for external recognition can feel threatening when they’re upstaged. Hierarchically based workplaces tend to allow nasty little bastards like Mr Huph to propagate unchallenged. So we either punch their lights out, or we leave. I left. But maybe Mr Huph did me a favour.

Mr Huph, The Invincibles

It seems to me that all any of us want from our work is the freedom to self-express. Through education and early work experience, we can be trained to doubt ourselves, always look for answers from someone else more senior, and become a mere cog in the machine of industry. However, it also seems that there’s something in us that desperately wants us to do our own thing, to self-direct, to create, and be in command of our own work. We have a grá for something more, but often the anticipation of insecurity keeps us where we are. We settle for less, then convince ourselves of the merit of our decision.

Back then, I was not yet married, and I had no kids, so the risk was small. The construction industry was booming, and I could always get another job if things didn’t work out. Things worked out, but before long, the enthusiasm of early self-employment gave way to the reality of operating solo. It’s no longer a nine-to-five; staff will lean heavily on you, and so will customers. The demands are relentless, and the pressure to deliver on commitments are significant. At the same time, the opportunities for financial freedom and personal development go far beyond what anyone can gain working under the command of others.

Some research suggests that it is a drive for personal autonomy that brings most people to self-employment. Others say it is through financial need that people become self-employed. I suppose both are right, but that’s not all. There’s a blend of many factors involved in the process. On reflection, the need to operate autonomously was certainly primary for me. That said, self-employment seems to be paradoxical–it holds enormous benefits, yet it can break your heart, mind and bank balance too. So a couple of years ago, resulting from personal interest and curiosity as to the nature of this paradox, I began to explore it.

Of particular interest is what happens when self-employed people hire others. My feeling is that the game irrevocably changes. The self-directed enterprise changes from a simple case of getting up, doing the work, and going home to a more demanding and dynamic scenario. Now you’ve got people depending on you. Income must cover the extra cost; wages must be done, employer taxes taken care of processes detailed and communicated, work to be measured and allocated, and customers assured. Even where staff numbers are low, there are additional demands on the technically proficient small business owner that weren’t there before–demands that need systems.

Within an established organisation, it’s easier for managers. They have the benefit of having the systems and procedures already built for them. All they need to do is execute. Self-employed people often need to build and test systems on the hoof. It can be an enormous task, so little wonder that many small businesses fail. When I reflect on my time managing people and the challenge of building systems by which they could work, I regret not taking the time to steal those systems from my former employer. I say regret, but I don’t really mean Regret with a big R. Rather, it’s regret with a small r. Naive enthusiasm blinded me to the future. I just wanted to do my own thing; the demands beyond the immediate need to get away from Mr Huph were impossible to see.

This weekend I submitted a research proposal based on this challenge of managing staff. I want to understand the relationship between self-employment, what research calls fulfilment of basic psychological needs and wellbeing, and how staff supervision impacts that wellbeing. My hypothesis is that people who work for themselves will have higher levels of wellbeing than those in direct employment but only where they do not supervise others. In addition, more staff under supervision will result in lower levels of wellbeing, but this can be countered by external support structures and time spent self-employed.

I am one of those people I’m studying. The self-employed writer, artist, plumber, accountant, architect, interior designer, graphic artist, photographer, marketing professional, sales agent–they are who I am. In the exploration of the conditions that make them tick, I am exploring myself. It could be said that I am biased, I can’t possibly be objective, and maybe that’s true. However, maybe from my self-employed seat, I am better positioned to understand that self-employed person and interpret the data than one who is not. Regardless, I’m looking forward to the investigation. It has a personal interest, and perhaps for a finish, I may be able to offer something of value to someone who finds themselves in the same shoes as I was ten years ago.

Self-employment is not for everyone, but commanding our own work is and should be. Some talk of worker-owned enterprises as a replacement to the capitalist based organisations we currently have. That’s exciting because it holds the promise of increasing autonomy for workers and less chance of a small number of people profiting off the backs of the majority. Why should this suggestion not be a viable workplace? Why should one or more men (and it’s usually men, or females masquerading as men) collect all the gold to exponential extents at the expense of workers? Ok, that’s a topic for another day perhaps, but worth discussing nonetheless.

In the meantime, my work's emphasis will be on promoting the concept of a business of one, of self-employment over direct employment and figuring out how to do it healthily. I believe it is our inherent right to direct our own work, and the more people that find it believe it’s possible and can do so to their benefit and everyone around them, the better our society can function. It’s not a workplace nirvana I’m looking for; problems will always exist. But it is one where we might resolve the paradox.

Stay tuned.

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