The last chapter of my book, Management Culture, is called, “Democracy at Work.” In it, I argue that we need to bring democratic principles to the workplace so people are free to pursue their own happiness, even at work.
I have gotten more skeptical reactions to this than any other part of the book. It seems many people don’t believe we have a right to expect freedom, or happiness, at work. Instead, too often, we expect to be controlled, and even coerced, because this is so common we have come to accept it as normal. It is NOT normal.
Some people dream of “being their own boss” but many lack the means or risk-tolerance to “strike out on their own.” Instead, most people live for the weekends and long for retirement, when they can truly be free from the grind, the pressure, the stress and perpetual frustration of work.
What if it were not so? What if we could all be free to be ourselves—fully ourselves—at work, even when we work for someone else? What if we were free to be creative, solve problems, improve processes, make decisions and explore ideas that would benefit our organizations? Would the workplace become utterly chaotic, as managers fear? No.
We need to expect more from our employers and our “bosses.” We need to offer and claim democratic values, beginning with freedom, at work. Organizations are healthier when people at all levels participate in the governance and leadership.
Employees can begin down this path by claiming more freedom—sharing ideas, requesting specific assignments, volunteering to be on committees, arranging to have coffee with people in other areas to learn and grow. These actions help us claim ownership of our work and career. It starts to shift the culture toward mutual trust and shared ownership.
As managers and supervisors, we need to emphatically root out all forms of coercion and begin to let go of control. We need to put our focus on goals, strategies and principles that everyone can align to, instead of controlling every aspect of the work and dictating orders. We need to share ownership of decisions, recognizing that the people who report to us have much to contribute to the organization. They are smart, creative, knowledgable and dedicated. It is often our tendency to try to control everything that keeps us from even seeing the talents, skills and passion of the people around us.
I spent too many years as a manager believing it was my job, not to just manage the work, but to own it. I thought I had to fix every problem, think through every challenge and make every decision, no matter how detailed. I was the thinker, I thought, and the people who reported to me were supposed to be the doers.
This approach failed again and again because my thinking was limited and my knowledge was incomplete. By feeling overly responsible to control everything, I became a bottle-neck, stressed out about all the people who were dependent on me to tell them what to do next.
Eventually, it occurred to me that I worked with people who were brilliant and more knowledgeable than me. I later learned that these smart people who reported to me were craving the opportunity to dig into problems, develop strategies and make decisions if only I would let go of control. Much to my dismay, I also learned that they often knew that my decisions would not work but remained silent. They did not think it was their place to question “the boss.”
Motivated by my new insights, I began assigning problems to be solved instead of (my) solutions to be implemented. By letting go of control, I created space for others do the work.
Over time, trust between me and the people who reported to me increased. Also, trust among team members increased as we got the opportunity to see and appreciate each other’s strengths and preferences. My focus became more strategic and future-oriented. My job became less about managing people and more about creating frameworks, putting the pieces together into a coherent whole, aligned with our goals, vision and values.
I still offered input, ideas and feedback on the details of work but no longer felt I owned it. The experts owned the work. Everyone became more engaged and invested, less stressed and frustrated. We all owned all the work—we just played different roles in getting it done.
This is what I mean by freedom. Everyone participating, owning and pursuing happiness. It is the start of democratizing the workplace.
Freedom is scalable. Creating more freedom at work strengthens individuals, teams, organizations and society. Freedom to pursue happiness in all realms of our lives strengthens democracy itself—something our country and world need more of right now.
For more radical ideas on how to improve work culture and practices, see my book, Management Culture at mgmtculture.com. Enter promo code “Freedom” to receive a 50% discount on the soft cover or eBook. Both are also available on Amazon and through Barnes & Noble.