I often encounter various cultures that exhibit control in different ways. In some of these cultures, employees are exposed to autocratic leaders whose leadership style ensures these employees 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 should never be 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 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 helping persons to learn and grow. Instead, they tend to blame each other or make excuses.
In cultures where control is a significant feature, employees 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 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 the directive 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.
In my experience, 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 you have ever known, who is being forced to do as she is directed, give her work the best effort possible or does she comply 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 severely limiting the ability of your team to perform at its fullest potential. When organizations inadvertently cause low morale by restricting persons who can add significant value these high performers sometimes become disenfranchised.
The freedom culture is the opposite of the stability and control culture. It is 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 free to speak up and be different, be the same, walk away, be transparent or be connected. 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 a freedom culture leaders are allowed to lead, make mistakes and grow. They are mindful of their team members and care about their development. In a freedom culture coworkers actually care about each other. They 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 old, unproductive behaviour that need to be sought out and neutralized in order for there to be a chance of achieving liberation from control and other limiting cultural traits. Additionally, when persons 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.
Yvette Bethel is CEO of Organizational Soul, an Organizational Effectiveness Consulting and Leadership Development company. She is a Consultant, Trainer, Speaker, Facilitator, Executive Coach, Author, and Emotional Intelligence Practitioner. If you are interested Yvette's ideas on other leadership topics you can sign up for her newsletter at www.yvettebethel.com or you can listen to her podcast at Evolve Podcast.