Freedom-for-all (not a free-for-all): the heart of agility & democracy
“Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.”
Agile working tends to be designed around personal freedom and autonomy. But that also comes with heightened responsibility.
In this post I will share a few reflections on how freedom and responsibility are intertwined in work and in our wider social context.
Early management theorists contended that the discipline, structure, order, control, and efficiency that comes with a strong, clear hierarchy is a hallmark of organizational effectiveness, even of civilization. And yet, the idea of hierarchy also invokes fear of being crushed under the weight of authority. Subsequent theory and research have tended towards promoting greater freedom, autonomy, and empowerment of a workforce to achieve productivity, quality, and efficiency gains.
Some of the most liberal countries in the world have recently shown an inability to manage a pandemic response well, or even to cultivate basic public health prior to the pandemic. Such things require a widespread sense of shared responsibility, and a culture of commitment to one’s own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. Freedom to operate, without the right education and empowerment, is ultimately frustrating, a poisoned chalice.
What I hear and read a lot about in the context of organizational agility, is the need to get rid of excessive control and hierarchy, to devolve decision making power. This also means offering more creative freedom to more people to accelerate product or service innovation and speed-to-market. Psychologically and behaviourally, this requires people to accept the added burden of responsibility to the organization, and to colleagues, that comes with job enrichment and enhanced autonomy. It also requires people to have the skills and know-how to fulfil their mandate.
The mutually reinforcing roles of freedom and responsibility within what psychologists refer to as ‘organizational citizenship’, are in this way analogous to a person’s wider sense of their citizenship role. Culture research has suggested that societies which are naturally more communitarian or collectivist, are better at cultivating responsible behaviour, while those which are naturally more individualistic encourage people to act with more freedom, or independence. Effective organizational citizenship in a digital context requires both.
The evidence does suggest that adequate freedom coupled with a deep sense of personal responsibility across the workforce, are both vital to performance in an adaptive, or agile organization. However, at this stage, there is little evidence for the efficacy of totally unstructured or anarchic organizations without designated leaders or authority. An agile way of working is, in this way, designed to go with the grain of a digital economy and digitalized work. Netflix has been a pioneer in this regard.
A combination of democratization in how people work, while at the same time reinforcing each person’s sense of responsibility, in which individuals also feel truly empowered and enabled, seems appropriate for a digital age. If we take the publicly available information at face value, Netflix seems to be a good example of a business that achieves this subtle integration.
Netflix is – not at all coincidentally - also setting the right tone when it comes to inclusive culture. At its heart, an inclusive culture promotes freedom-for-all, not a free-for-all to pursue personal agendas consciously or unconsciously. Inclusion requires a sense of responsibility towards others, not just for oneself, or for those who are like oneself. An agile, high performance culture is radically, and intentionally inclusive.
Again, if we take the publicly available information at face value, Netflix leaders are actively encouraged to demonstrate inclusive behaviour, which, by definition, emphasizes both personal freedom and responsibility towards others. It is also important to point out that, even in a highly empowered organization such as Netflix, leaders are still held to account. The delegation of authority does not preclude leadership accountability.
Achieving the right combination of freedom and responsibility in a culture is a learning process that requires active experimentation. It can give an organization a performance edge in a digital economy, as it appears to for Netflix.
Exercising our personal freedoms in a way that is responsible also seems to me to be key to tackling many of the most urgent social challenges that we face, such as public health emergencies, inequality, climate change, identity politics, or cyber security. In the weeks and months ahead, huge swathes of the global workforce continue to face serious existential challenges due to C-19. Some sectors are busily and aggressively monetizing the crisis.
Whatever our professional position, each of us might ask ourselves if we are seeking out and exploiting what freedoms we do have in a responsible way, as organizational citizens, as well as in a wider sense, as members of our communities.
What would the right combination of freedom and responsibility look like in your work and in your life?
See also -
McCord, P. (2018). Powerful: Building a culture of freedom and responsibility. United States: Silicon Guild.
Trompenaars, F. & Hampden-Turner, C. (1993). Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding diversity in global business. 3rd Edition (2012). London, UK: NB Publishing.
My books are available on Amazon:
Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world
Change Agility: Leadership, transformation and the pursuit of purpose