Liberation Is Hard Work

Liberation Is Hard Work

But unless you set your people free, they'll never be as creative as you need them to be.

By Richard Koch

Liberation Is Hard Work


Richard Koch is a former management consultant, entrepreneur, and writer of several books on how to apply the Pareto principle in all walks of life. From The 80/20 Manager: The Secret to Working Less and Achieving More (Little, Brown). ©2013.

A liberating manager must be utterly honest with his or her people, supportive and friendly yet very demanding. But there is more to being a liberating manager than understanding how to use techniques and levers. It involves adopting a certain philosophy and cultivating deep personal qualities that are quite unusual but richly rewarding, in any sphere of life.

The liberating manager brings out the best in all of his or her people for the benefit of each individual and the company, inspiring each team member to develop and hone their creative side, the small aspects of their personality and abilities that can lead to startling results without the need for excessive effort. But liberation requires total honesty and openness from both the manager and the people who are being inspired and liberated. Consequently, it is not for everyone, and it is not even possible in some organizations.

To get the best out of your people, you need to open up their creative side—the 20 percent of their abilities and personality that can lead to more than 80 percent of what they can deliver. That is, you need to liberate them to achieve their full potential, which means identifying their few outstanding personal “spikes,” then encouraging them to nurture and deploy these skills in ways that will benefit the team and the company. To achieve this, you may need to know them better, in some ways, than they know themselves. And you will need to convince them to jettison—or “outsource”—everything that they do not do brilliantly.

You will often find that even the smartest and most creative people, especially if they are young and inexperienced, hide their light under the corporate bushel. One of the best publishers I've ever met once admitted to me, “When I was quite junior, I sometimes wasn't really sure whether I'd had a good idea or not, and often I didn't do anything about it and later regretted it. All I needed was a nudge from someone above me to say, 'Yes, it's OK, give it a go, and don't worry if it doesn't work.' But I rarely got that nudge, so I remained on a pedestrian career path for several years until I found a boss who told me to step forward with confidence.”

If someone's creative side is to flourish, she needs to work in an honest, friendly, open environment. Historically, firms have been extremely bad at providing this; big firms have typically been the worst of all.

For thousands of years, organizations have been based on power, fear, and tight supervision. More recently, the Protestant work ethic has endorsed and reinforced this philosophy. “Not to oversee workmen,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “is to leave them your purse open.” When large factories became important, from the 1800s, they naturally followed the repressive supervision that was practiced in workshops and mines. Human labor was a commodity; it was bought and sold. The Industrial Revolution herded masses of people together in big factories and big cities, crushing the variability and personal autonomy that had characterized small-scale artisan crafts. Mass production required discipline and standardization. Costs fell as scale and uniformity rose. A handful of inventors and entrepreneurs had to be creative, but everyone else had to do what they were told. “Hands” were needed; brains were not.

Later in the nineteenth century, slavery and economic servitude started, very gradually, to go out of fashion. A few eccentrics—rich philanthropists typically driven by radical Christian convictions, such as the Cadbury, Fry, and Hershey families—began to experiment with working communities built on benevolence rather than fear. These nonconformist businesses prospered, but they remained small islands of respect and paternalism in industry's oceans of fear. And even the reformers had no concept that individual workers could contribute anything beyond the conscientious execution of directions from superiors. It was not until the 1930s that the Human Relations School, heavily rooted in academic psychology, began to challenge business ideology and the prevailing management culture.

One landmark in this new philosophy was the publication in 1960 of The Human Side of Enterprise by Douglas McGregor, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He identified two ways of managing, which he dubbed Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X represented the assumptions of traditional, authoritarian, command-and-control management: People would not work unless they were closely monitored, and they were motivated largely by money. By contrast, Theory Y held that people were inherently motivated by curiosity, the instinct to collaborate, and the pleasure they felt from using their own skills and creativity. McGregor did not advocate either theory over the other. His point was that the two sets of assumptions were incompatible and that some managers followed Theory X while others followed Theory Y. He wanted executives to reflect on their own assumptions and then push their organizations to experiment, to see which approach worked better.

In my less academic and blunter shorthand, Theory X is management by fear; Theory Y is inspiration by love. Over the next three decades, management scientists conducted many studies to identify which approach achieved better financial results. They reached a clear consensus: Theory X worked well in traditional, predictable, slow-changing industries where competitive advantage was based more on hard resources (the most capital, the biggest factories, the easiest access to mineral wealth, the lowest production costs) than on human creativity. However, in knowledge-based industries, which tend to be more dynamic and less capital intensive—such as fashion, consumer products, information technology, investment banking, entertainment, and the service sector generally—Theory Y won hands down. The traditional approach didn't work at all well in industries where the route to success lay in attracting the best people and encouraging them to use their minds collaboratively and creatively.

Contrast the “dark Satanic mills” of late eighteenth-century Manchester with the leafy, campus-like grounds of Silicon Valley today. Fear worked well enough in the former. But in the latter, where professionals change jobs every two years on average, and demand for the best talent always outstrips supply, the balance of power—and the culture—is very different. Given a choice, most Silicon Valley executives prefer love to fear.


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