Freedom to Do the Work that Matters Most photo

Freedom to Do the Work that Matters Most

Since at least the time of Frederick Taylor, the father of “scientific management,” control has been central to corporate organization. It feels like what a manager should be doing: Setting targets, monitoring adherence to procedures, directing, shaping the future of the business. Control feels essential—especially if you are the boss.

Except it turns out that far from being vital, top-down control carries serious costs, many of which have been hiding in plain sight. What is more, there is an alternative. And not a pie-in-the-sky fantasy conjured up on a whiteboard, but a real, working alternative. It has been practiced to varying degrees in companies around the world for decades.

This alternative has never had a name because—fittingly, as you’ll see—it hasn’t really had a guru. Its principles have been passed from business leader to business leader like samizdat. But more recently it has started to come into the open. We call it corporate liberation.

The idea can be stated simply enough: A liberated company allows employees complete freedom and responsibility to take actions that they—not their managers—decide are best for their company’s vision. That doesn’t mean that these firms are unmanaged. On the contrary, the specific actions that we observed in close to one hundred liberated companies prove the opposite.

For example, every morning, a liberated company’s manager would ask whether there is anything preventing their team from doing their best. That may not sound unusual, but here’s the first twist: When their team shares a problem or an opportunity with them, they will not offer a solution. Instead, they ask them to find their own—after ensuring that there isn’t something she’s doing that would get in the way.

Human beings have certain universal psychological needs: The need to be treated as intrinsically equal, the need for personal growth, and to exercise self-direction. Each of these needs is frequently and systematically denied by traditional command-and-control managerial hierarchies. Perhaps the most important benefit of liberating an organization—because it leads in turn to all the other benefits—is the creation of an environment that feeds these universal needs, rather than stifling them. - Glenn Leet

Thus one of the most striking findings about liberated companies is the extremely high level of engagement and intrinsic motivation among employees. The collateral benefit of this high engagement is that the liberated organization outperforms the traditional one. The reason for it is not in some top-management talk about serving the “whole person.” It’s simply that feeding psychological needs lead to higher engagement and—as a consequence—to higher team productivity and initiative and increased corporate performance.

If you manage a business or plan to do so, here are practical steps to build a freedom-based workplace in your own company right now.

Steps for building a freedom-based team

Lose your ego. Your employees won’t believe you trust their intelligence if you are always the one with the “best solution.”

Share the company’s vision. This isn’t specific to building a liberated workplace. Yet, given the discretion allowed in freedom-based companies, a shared vision is fundamental since it provides a common criterion for the teams to make their decisions. Qualified people don’t need to be told how to do their jobs, but especially when you set them free, they need to know why they’re doing what they’re doing—so they can do it better.

Create the respect tide—the climate in which most manager-leaders show through their actions that they respect and trust employees.  It requires the manager-leaders to remove the obstacles preventing teams from doing their best.

Ask your team what’s in their way. If any organizational practice or structural element is mistrusting their intelligence, limiting their growth, or hampering their self-direction. If yes, ask them to redesign it. Be prepared to see the majority of control practices and structures—both in the hierarchical and in the support functions—gradually replaced. The respect tide will stimulate teams’ willingness to set their own work schedules or to make their own hires, and these demands affect organizational processes.

Become the guardian of the liberated team. When teams assume more responsibilities and make more decisions on their own, fewer remain for all levels of managers. Managers who accept this will be busy serving their teams while abstaining from using their formal authority.

Your employees will be willing to come to work every day to do their best, your manager-leaders will spend their days revealing employee potential, and you will enjoy dinner every night with your family knowing that your business is succeeding.

Adapted HBR Sept 2018 Carney & Getz