Most people want more freedom in their work – but it comes with responsibility

Most people want more freedom in their work. More room to maneuver, and to make their own decisions. To be the master of their own destiny. Organizations increasingly experiment with work forms empowering employees. And it works. According to research, it increases productivity.

But often it’s a struggle to get there. Managers feel less in control, some employees feel uncomfortable (e.g. not everybody likes to work from home), and both feel that not everyone deals responsibly with having more leeway.

I passionately believe in the benefits of giving employees more freedom. More room to choose their own path, more flexibility so they can reach their targets in the way they think best. However, sometimes it doesn’t work as well as I expected, and I had some nagging doubts.

And then I realized: with freedom comes responsibility. For the employee, for the manager, and for the organization. It just doesn’t work when people don’t realize that freedom also brings responsibilities.

Let’s start with the employee. Getting more freedom in your work, also means you become more accountable. It should get less easy to blame others. However, often, people somehow find more reasons to put blame elsewhere.

Or when the organization wants all voices to be heard. It doesn’t mean you should (1) give your opinion in a blunt, harsh manner; (2) expect your opinion will always be taken into account. When people are asked to speak up, it isn’t an excuse to just blurt out everything. If your badly given feedback hurts anyone, or chases away the client, don’t be proud of being the type that ‘just says how it is’. You have to think about the consequences first. And, you have to think through whether your opinion adds value. If not, why waste everyone’s time sharing it?

Then the manager. When you decide to manage employees just on output, you really have to do so. Manage on deadlines, on milestones, on achievements. Focus on the value they add. If output is lacking, don’t be shy to address that. Employees need to know. If they experience difficulties, see if you can help them. But don’t let them get away with vague stories on why they couldn’t achieve what you’ve agreed with them. It’s their responsibility to get something done, and to inform you when something is preventing them from performing. If they don’t, address that. They need to show you they’re capable of managing themselves.

Colleagues need to address each other as well. If someone’s not delivering, which prevents you from reaching your deadline, you need to speak up. First to your colleague, then to his manager. We all need to contribute. In many organizations people find it hard to address each other. But if you are all expected to manage your own job, you also have to manage the interfaces with other people to get your job done.

When you have doubts implementing new ways of working, with more freedom, consider the above. Show people they have to take responsibility. And how to do that.