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  • ybethel

Setting The Stage For A Freedom Culture

Updated: Mar 17

I often encounter cultures that exhibit control in different ways.  In some of these cultures, employees are exposed to autocratic leaders whose leadership styles ensure team members will not take initiative.  In fact, in some highly controlled cultures, I have encountered leaders who go as far as saying “I don’t pay you to think, just do as you are told”. This sentiment is not always verbally expressed, it can be an unspoken rule.

In these cultures, policies and procedures are highly revered and mistakes are perceived as weaknesses, or even worse, an excuse for finger-pointing. Additionally, mistakes are never forgotten, whether or not the infraction remains on a person’s file, institutional memory causes the error to be perceived as an indelible fault that is never forgiven.

What is unfortunate with this line of thinking is that many of us learn by doing, and making mistakes is part of doing. When mistakes are viewed as wrong, or recorded as a one-time infraction that weighs heavily on your annual performance appraisal, we are being programmed into believing that mistakes should be avoided at all costs. Because not making mistakes is humanly impossible, fear emerges and a fearful environment is not ideal for learning and growing. Instead, people start to blame each other or make excuses.

In cultures where control is a pronounced feature, employees can feel trapped. They comply with directives because they know non-compliance can have dramatic, negative consequences. These consequences range from marginalization and being ignored, to being terminated.

When job security is a clear and ever-present threat, fear becomes a prison that causes persons to avoid stepping outside the box of established cultural norms. In circumstances like this, compliance becomes a survival strategy, and trust is non-existent so important information needed for decisions does not flow from the bottom of the organization upwards. This is because when employees are afraid of being the ones to point out a potential error in a directive so instead of speaking the truth, they sometimes tell decision-makers what they want to hear.

Cultures that rely heavily on controlling structures are sometimes very good at generating profits because they are adept at understanding how to create rigid policies and procedures that drive a high performing organization. However, when top performers feel micromanaged by these policies, or even worse, if they are not learning and growing, an organization can lose its best people.

I have encountered multiple policy and procedure driven environments that are very successful, the attitude of those in the decision-making seats is “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it!”  This is the attitude despite the fact that countless modern surveys reveal - engaged employees will outperform established norms or even records.

Think about it for yourself, has any top performer who is being micromanaged, giving their work the best effort possible or are they complying with instructions as closely as possible?  Perhaps in some cases, but in multiple cases these persons are not allowed to do more than asked without consequences. It is important to recognize these dynamics because your organizational culture may be limiting the ability of your team to perform at its fullest potential.

Freedom Cultures

Freedom cultures are the opposite of stability and control cultures. Freedom cultures tend to be free, facilitative and growth oriented. Now don’t get me wrong here, in a freedom culture there are policies, procedures and an organizational chart in place but they are not restrictive. Instead these structural tools facilitate flexibility and innovation, especially when leaders demonstrate agility, integrity, effective communication skills, and strong recruitment practices.

The essence of a freedom culture is that employees feel safe. They are willing to speak up and be themselves, or think the same as others, walk away, be transparent or connected. The point is that they are free to be empowered and engaged. They are part of a meritocracy, where fairness is in everything they experience and the negative influences of power and politics are minimized.

In freedom cultures leaders are allowed to lead, make mistakes and grow. They are trusted and mindful of their team members so they care about their development. In freedom cultures coworkers can experience genuine concern not only about themselves but also the well-being of their families.

Establishing a freedom culture where one did not previously exist is not as simple as providing training.  There are cultural norms that support this configuration of the culture and they need to be sought out and neutralized for there to be a chance of achieving liberation from control and other limiting cultural traits. Additionally, when team members have been part of a controlled, power driven culture for a long time, they are not automatically free because someone says they are. Creating a freedom culture takes time because it involves trust building and deconstructing messy power dynamics.

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With knowledge gained from almost 40 years of Fortune 500 and international consulting experience, Yvette shares her rich experience and proprietary model for changing businesses from the inside out. She is a thought leader in the areas of trust, leadership and organizational ecosystems, a multiple award-winning author and cultural consultant.

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