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If I give my employees more freedom, won’t they just take advantage?

There is no promise of a risk-free process:  if there’s no risk there’s no real change. And the greatest risk lies in action. Yet, some may take advantage. Partly because they can, partly because they may never have experienced at work the kind of freedom on offer and they are sceptical about its authenticity.

But fear not: it is highly unlikely this betrayal of trust will be going beyond a minority or be a significant problem. And the risk can be mitigated by creating the right environment. This is one reason why it’s important to lay boundaries early on and make it clear that freedom doesn’t come for free; a price is paid, in the form of a promise or set of responsibilities. You should be willing to have some grace early on. But if people do take excessive advantage, do not shy away from making an example of it. Certainly, don't have a different process for dealing with Senior Leadership from everyone else: this is perhaps the one example everyone will be watching most closely.

The freedom-based approach requires authentic, supportive and open relationships, defined by trust and geared towards a shared belief in the purpose of the organisation. The better a leader can curate the context (see: “What is the role of Senior Leadership in 21st Century Orgs?”), the better employees will respond to increased freedom in their work life.

Alongside introducing freedom based work practices and removing controlling limitations on employee creativity and potential, leaders must consider the following questions:

  • Do my employees trust me? What can I do to show I am trustworthy?
  • Am I ready to have honest, open and two-way communication with my employees?
  • What is our shared purpose and is it something we have created together and all understand?
  • How can we foster emotional investment in our work?
  • Am I ready to default to trust and empathy, support staff to succeed but also embrace failure?
  • How can I create the right environment for self-managing individuals to flourish?
  • How can I enable employees to choose their own freedom; to opt-in to the why, what and how of their own work and have real control over that?

Giving employees more freedom is a shift that takes time. A leader must curate the right environment and make the right changes, and employees must evolve to take more responsibility and embrace self-management. Some will respond better than others, and there may well be some for whom a less top-down way forward will be neither attractive nor possible. There is the risk that people will take advantage but this exists within the status quo model as well. But, as is apparent in all human contexts, this is not the majority. To thrive in the current and future context, organisations must make the most of the awesome potential they have already, their people. And to do this we must be prepared to set them free, regardless of the consequences.

"How will we operate in the future? To be perfectly honest, I don’t know. I’m convinced that you deserve for us to work together differently, but I don’t have an alternative model. I suggest that, together, we learn by doing, with good intentions, common sense, and in good faith."

Jean François Zobrist

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  1. Georgie Wiles

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