An interview with the authors of Freedom, Inc.

Brian Carney and Isaac Getz are the authors of a new book called Freedom, Inc., which is being released today!  WorkplaceDemocracy.com spoke with them recently about their book and its connection to workplace democracy.

What is Freedom, Inc. about?

Freedom, Inc. is a book about the most important corporate movement of the last two decades, a movement that has been quietly transforming the fortunes of dozens of businesses and the lives of thousands of employees by using a source of benefits neglected by most—complete freedom and responsibility for employees to take actions they—not their bosses—decide are best.

Each of the unusual bosses and amazing leaders profiled in Freedom, Inc. have performed near-miracles in driving their companies to unheard-of levels of success, often from unlikely or disheartening beginnings. And each has something in common with the others—he believes that the key to business success is freeing up the initiative and genius of every, even the lowest-ranked employee in the firm, every day. How they set their employees free—and how their lessons can be applied to firms in every industry, of any size, anywhere in the world—is the story of this book.

After four years of research, thought and debate, we have identified three stages that each leader went through to build a radically free workplace—rejecting the command-and-control structure, enlisting employees in building a free workplace, and staying put in spite of setbacks;  and in each successive stage this leader relied on one corresponding personal strength: values, creativity, and wisdom . Among the leaders of the companies we studied, these three strengths set them apart from other executives while binding them as a group.

Were most of the companies featured in Freedom, Inc. founded as democratic companies or did their management structures evolve from more hierarchical structures?

I’ll reply to all your questions considering that “democratic” means “freedom-based”–the term we use in the book to describe the companies we studied.  We avoid “democratic” mainly because it focuses too much on the instruments (and none of our companies used, for example, formal voting for making decisions). Our companies, each with their own instruments, all focused rather on the end: freedom of action and initiative for every employee.

What inspired these companies to develop freedom-based workplaces?

Each company had what we call a liberating leader at its head, who initiated the changes.  The leader was either frustrated with command & control companies and/or admirative of the freedom-based ones such as WL Gore & Associates.

How does democracy work at these companies?

Freedom of action is achieved when an environment satisfies universal human needs instead of hampering them. These needs are intrinsic equality, growth, and self-direction, according to the most advanced psychological research carried out by University of Rochester psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan.

What have been some of the main challenges in cultivating democratic workplaces?

Workplaces struggle to evolve the often authoritarian managers’ practices into freedom nurturing practices.  Some liberating leaders had to remove certain managers (albeit keeping their salary) from the positions of authority.

Why should companies consider decentralizing their workplace?  What are the advantages of freedom-based or democratic companies?

Freedom of action is a tremendous advantage because in freedom-based companies, employees facing a sudden surge in competition, a downturn, a new government regulation, or an inadequate business process don’t simply wait for their higher ups or some new policies to tell them what to do. Instead, they take action that they—not their bosses—deem is best for the company and they do it right away—not when it’s too late. Add to that that frontline people always know better what’s going on and what needs to be done. So letting them take action is pure common sense.

What is the most important step that companies should take in order to become more democratic?

The most important step is for the liberating leader to stop telling people how to do their work and instead ask them how they want to do it.

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Investors Benefit from Zappos Democratic Work Environment

Zappos, the online shoe retailer famous for its quirky company culture and unconventional management practices, recently announced that it is being acquired by Amazon.com for $847 million.  Founded in 1999, it took Zappos less than a decade to achieve revenues of over $1 billion, and the company has been profitable since 2006. 

Tony Hsieh, Zappos’ CEO, credits his company’s meteoric rise in a highly competitive market to the company’s laser-like focus on providing excellent service and support. 

As many democratic and decentralized companies have realized, the key to offering fantastic support is to enable employees to rely on their instincts and to trust them to make their own decisions.  At Zappos, customer service call center reps are not required to read from scripts.  Instead, they are encouraged to use discretion in making their own decisions without seeking approval from their supervisors. 

Zappos has worked hard to blur the lines between managers and employees that are common in traditional organizational hierarchies.  The company’s goal is to develop a fun, playful work environment where coworkers and bosses feel more like friends.  Managers are required to spend time socializing with their employees.   

Inc.com provides a detailed look at ‘the Zappos way of managing’.