The Case for Freedom and Responsibility in Organizations

50+ years ago Janis Joplin sang: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…”. She was a wild and tragic figure looking for freedom, but never found it. She recorded the song “Me and Bobby Mcgee” only a few days before her death from an overdose in October 1970.

The statement must be the ultimate pessimistic view of freedom. Fortunately, there is a more positive spin on the concept of freedom. We will take a look at the concept of freedom in organizations.

If you want people to engage in work in their organizations, you have to create an environment that allows freedom and responsibility to grow. This is well known, so how come we do not see more of it?

So it follows that freedom to choose is a prerequisite for any realistic talk about people assuming responsibility or taking ownership. We will now look at:

  • The necessity of freedom for the individual to engage
  • The relationship between freedom, robustness, and responsibility
  • The foundation for freedom, primarily respect, trust, and choice
  • The potential outcome of freedom
  • How to move in that direction from where you are now

Over the years we have collected a wealth of experiences in this field. We have studied the research and the thinking of many who have contributed.

Timothy Snyder has been a great inspiration for me. He is a professor of history at Yale University, specializing in Central and Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and the Holocaust. Has written many books, among others: The Road to Unfreedom and On Tyranny, 20 short lectures exist about the latter here…

The necessity of freedom for the individual for engagement

Like in a society that typically cannot thrive unless there is freedom for the citizens, an organization cannot be its very best if it cannot manage to set its people free to be resilient and innovative.

Teams working in unpredictable or fast-moving environments must have free and open communication. Then critical information can get to the people who need it urgently. Before that can happen they need to know that they have the freedom to speak up without fear of being shut down, criticized, ridiculed, or even fired, read more here…

In the same way, a society can only thrive if the citizens share a certain willful commitment to a common set of values and goodwill to choose to uphold the values.

When we as human beings do not have the freedom to choose, to be creative, try out ideas, and experience accomplishment and fulfillment, we either resign to the situation, check out mentally, and focus on staying out of trouble; or if the opportunity exists to vote with our feet and emigrate to find a better life.

The checking out is now also known as “Quiet quitting” or disengagement, which according to Gallup still is at a staggering 77 percent across the global workforce, only 23% are engaged!

The most frequent reason for “quitting” – whether quiet or not – among people who are not in a low-income bracket, where they do not have reasonable spending power, is dissatisfaction with an experienced unreasonable authority, whether a system or a person.

The relationship between freedom, robustness, and responsibility

Our claim is that true taking of responsibility (commitment, ownership, call it what you will) can only exist when entered voluntarily.

You can declare someone responsible and force them to say “yes” to that, they only do that out of fear then. The consequences are that they will look for ways of deflecting responsibility and blame to others, and it only lasts until people have wiggled out of the power structure that controls this fear.

You can also “buy” (bribe, compensate, etc.) someone to say “yes” to the responsibility. The consequences here are somewhat the same, but this only lasts until people find a more attractive deal. This is how many on the CEO trail operate.

A third way is to sort of manipulate people by motivational tactics and “nudging” into doing what you want – and not what they want. This is an art mastered for decades by the advertising profession. But the backlash, when people discover they have been tricked, can be severe.

But if people choose to enter into a commitment and assume responsibility through invitation, it means a lot more. It is resilient and sustainable. It normally happens when people see a true purpose that matters, and have autonomy that they can grow and can have good relationships en route – that is by the way called Intrinsic Motivation.

Furthermore, I believe there is a connection to be drawn. In a recently published paper¹ about children’s decline in mental health, one conclusion is that constant control and monitoring in childhood drive children to think of themselves as victims, not capable of accomplishing things. I don’t think it stops there.

I strongly believe that it is the same effect we observe in organizations, where scores of people are robbed of initiative when they are subjected to massive procedural and financial monitoring and control. We all start to believe we are victims and not capable of independent contribution and hence devoid of value.

The foundation for freedom is primarily respect, trust, and choice

Before people can start acting as free and responsible agents in a social setting such as a society or an organization, there are some preconditions or as Dave Snowden puts it “Enabling Constraints”. It is not an unlimited freedom to do whatever you fancy, it is not expressive individualism, but a freedom within agreed boundaries among the parties.

The principles of self-management are often quoted, for example from the company Morningstar, which operates based on just two principles:

  • No one can use force to make somebody else do something
  • Everyone honors their commitments

It all starts with respect for others, to see others, including your current subordinates or superiors as competent and contributing to the common good. To respect that they are free actors of intrinsic dignity.

Then we can choose to serve others, and commit and honor these commitments, this, in turn, creates trust.

However, there has to be a set of Enabling Constraints, agreed principles, or a constitution, with sufficient common commitment and support among people. There has to be a sufficient overlap of values and objectives, to facilitate moving in an agreed good direction with independent actors choosing and taking responsibility.

There has to be a sufficient willingness to relinquish power, abstain from force and fear as controlling instruments, and a willingness to seek a balance of value for all parties concerned. It has to be voluntarily chosen, it cannot be coerced.

The potential outcomes of freedom

The freedom to choose and act is the foundation of a number of positives, they are all facets of the same quality: Taking ownership (responsibility), engaging, intrinsic motivation, psychological safety, innovation, and resilience.

If people voluntarily choose to engage and commit the results can be staggering. Gallup’s studies of engagement in the workforce, done every year, document huge differences between those organizations with high and those with low commitment. Ranging from turnover via safety incidents to customer satisfaction. Engagement does however not happen unless freely chosen.

Other studies show how innovation and resilience rely completely on people’s mandate to make decisions and have the freedom to experiment and occasionally experience failures – the freedom to learn from these and change direction or process.

Finally, the freedom to choose and not be micromanaged improves everybody’s well-being and an experience of self-worth. This provides the mental capital to choose to serve others as well. Interestingly enough, studies show that a primary source of the experience of life quality is giving to others – much more so than receiving. You experience the satisfaction of having contributed.

How to move in the direction of freedom from where you are now

There are obviously no simple answers to this question, it is complex and the solution depends on context. However, there are principles and building blocks to consider:

  • Before starting the journey, I would strongly recommend that you carefully set and review your objectives and motivations and document these. In the same way, express your commitment to relinquish power and control and seek balanced value for all involved. These are your guiding principles, your lighthouse if you get thrown off course. You are venturing on somewhat of a journey into the unknown, an experiment, there will be setbacks and disappointments en route. Let’s not be romantic about that.
  • Start creating small self-managing, cross-functional teams with a clear purpose wherever it is possible. Everything is much more robust if it is anchored in teams. There are whole books written on that subject.
  • Look for people of character willing to commit roughly to the same guiding principles as mentioned above. Let them choose to volunteer for the teams and their purpose, even better participate in defining the teams and their purpose. This is the first act of liberation, like the crossing of the Red Sea, away from the previous power structure.
  • Then there is a potentially long wandering in the wilderness, learning to live in this new world of freedom. As David Marquet² puts it: “We push authority as far out as we can find someone, who can carry it“. Clearly, people must be able to carry the weight of freedom. Marquet concludes: “We have to grow people in competence and clarity” – the latter meaning understanding of purpose and direction.
  • There are a number of qualities that are essential, they are all intertwined and cannot be achieved in a simple reductionist manner. I will just mention a few: Transparency, Psychological Safety, and Trust. Again, books have been written about each topic, several guiding strategies exist, and I urge you to have at least these three topics on your radar on your journey.
  • Many good practices can be recommended. I will only mention one: Communicating Intent. This means letting other people see your intentions before you effectuate them, which makes it possible for other people to offer you help, suggest a better way, or perhaps propose something else including helping them with something. In my experience, this little trick does wonders in a team, it facilitates constant adaptation, and finding the better way, and this is resilience in practice. It also binds the team together and strengthens their confidence. If it is coupled with showing appreciation for each other’s accomplishments, the team can go from strength to strength.

Many other things could be drawn out, but this is a good set to start with. The rest will be discovered on the road in the organizational wilderness and solutions can be found.

Rounding up

Freedom is a necessity for humans to thrive, we absolutely have to seek it, if people in organizations and societies are to flourish. But due to the mixed nature of us humans, capable of incredible good and creative things, but also of atrocities when accumulating power, there have to be checks and balances, to ensure that no one grabs power again and starts exploiting. Freedom is a fragile plant that has to be tended to continuously.

General Stanley McChrystal³ said, slightly paraphrased: “At the tender age of 50 I had to change from being a chess master, moving the pieces around, to being the gardener preparing the soil for people to engage.

It starts with you, do you choose freedom?

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others” — Nelson Mandela

¹ Peter Gray, Ph.D., Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Boston College,

² Captain David Marquet in “Turn the Ship Around”, 2013

³ General Stanley McChrystal in “Team of Teams”, 2015

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