Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Power of Setting Free

“Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better” goes a famous saying. Google up freedom and you will get a thousand quotes from famous and not-so-famous people over the ages. It is one of the most used words and most desired states to be in for all human beings. It is something for which we have fought each other through the ages. And yet, in the world as in corporate life, one often gets to see the other extreme. In majority of sectors and organizations today there seems to be an excess of control which is being imposed on employees. Every organization is built around a certain value system which characterizes it, these are manifested to the employees and the external world through vision, mission and value statements. These denote what the organization stands for, what is the image it wants to project to the external world and what is the purpose of its existence. Once an employee joins an organization, this comes across to the employee in the form of organization culture- that soft aspect which one feels while working for an organization. These are propagated and upheld by the central or head office, and flow to the various branches or locations from them, and to do that every organization needs to have systems and processes to standardize practices. There is no disputing the importance of such processes, these are what ensure employees follow a standardized approach towards work, quality standards are upheld and the customer gets to see a uniform face of the organization across locations and service verticals. However there is also a sub-plot here, one that gets played out in the smaller teams in the locations. There is an evolution life cycle for any new employee who joins a team in the organization. He starts off as a rookie, learns about the organization and its processes and policies, gets trained on the job, undergoes skill upgradation (hopefully!) and becomes a fully contributing team member in a particular time frame (typically 6 months-1 year, depending on the job complexity) (I am talking of the middle section of the bell curve here, and not of the extremes). It is but obvious a new joinee would require hand-holding in his rookie avatar, and has to be brought up-to speed by his supervisor. This is the phase where one tends to micro-manage and closely monitor the daily performances and activities. However, the problem starts when this micro-managing becomes a way of life, even after the employee has begun contributing fully, and there is no particular issue on the skill or will front (ability vs willingness, for the framework inclined!). I have observed we are often reluctant to give autonomy to our team members. There are various mindsets at work- not having enough trust on the person that he will be able to do a good job without supervision, insecurity as supervisor (what will I do if I don’t monitor him? That is my job!), a know-it-all attitude (I know better, so he needs to ask me about everything!). I believe this has also got to do with the prevailing social conditioning that tells us giving too much freedom is dangerous, and it is important to be able to control! However, in doing so, we don’t realize what we are losing out on. From my personal experience I have seen the benefits of setting people free. Of course one will need to have tracking and monitoring mechanisms in place as a supervisor, so as to ensure one sticks to the overall organization mandate. However, as supervisor one needs to take a call on the extent of monitoring really needed, and one also needs to work towards making his teammates autonomous to the extent possible. The factors one needs to consider are whether the person has completely aligned with the organization culture and way of working, whether he has the requisite skill levels and confidence to take on the role independently and whether the basic relationships are in place with stakeholders, and that is the time to set them free. I have seen such team members soar and express their creativity and express themselves freely, and in doing so they have grown as professionals as well as individuals as well as put in high performances within the organization framework, isn’t that what all of us should want? And this is not to mention the sheer joy and satisfaction one gets seeing the above take place. Among the many benefits of setting people free, a very crucial one to the organization and team is the sheer number of good ideas people come up with, and we all know the execution buy-in is the highest if the idea comes from the person himself or herself. Of course, we will need to take a call regarding whom to set free, and when. How we do it is also equally crucial. There are also certain high risk jobs which would still require a constant supervision across all levels, purely given the complexity, job demands and high stakes involved. This approach may not also work for everyone, as this assumes that the other person doesn’t have any will issue, and has genuine intent on doing well. However, I have a belief majority of employees want to do well for themselves, and value freedom. This is also a journey for everyone involved as different supervisors may have varying confidence levels and the “freedom threshold” might be different and may require more handholding for some than others. But the more we can do this and the more people can be made autonomous (within the overall framework), the more organizations will gain, productivity will be likely to go up and attrition tackled, to whatever extent.