With Freedom Comes Responsibility

This was one of the key messages from the Mix Mashup that I attended in San Francisco this week. The conference was amazing. I am rarely around so many powerful thinkers. By the end of the day, my brain was exhausted, but in a good way.

It was very exciting to be around people who are thinking about and talking about and researching the same ideas that Maddie and wrote about in Humanize. One theme that came up a lot was openness and decentralization. Most were in agreement that there was great power available in the periphery of our organizations, we just needed to figure out how to set that power free.

But as the saying goes, with freedom comes great responsibility. Interestingly, however, the responsibility I am thinking of here exists more at the center of the organization than at the periphery. If we (at the center) are going to give them (at the periphery) more freedom, then I think we have the responsibility to give them the tools, information, and clarity that they need to responsibly use their freedom.

Too often, we set people free without giving them what they need. We demand people take “ownership” over their job, yet we give them only very high level strategic guidance that doesn’t help them make their own decisions, or we counteract our own demand by holding them accountable to a very detailed and specific job description. We’re then disappointed with the way they handled their freedom, leading us to retain even more control than before.

In traditional organizations we set people up for failure like this all the time. If you’re in the center of your organization, maybe you need a new job description that helps you focus more on enabling freedom. It might include making sure everyone knows enough about the business end of the organization to make smart resource decisions. Working through the conflict at the senior team level so you can produce clear strategic principles, rather than lofty high-end visions that everyone supports, but don’t help them make decisions.

Let’s start setting up our people for success.

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  1. 22.06.2012 at 7:53 am

    “Set that power free”

    I get it. I really do. But there’s something about that expression that speaks too much of the mindset that shackled the power to begin with. I envision people in suits and ties doling out little packets of power to the mass of minions.

    But I’ve always liked Robert Quinn’s assertion that people empower themselves, not organizations. People already possess more power than they think. As you and Maddie discuss in Humanize, social enables it in new ways.

    Perhaps those in formal leadership positions need to focus less on giving people power, but refusing to accept the power they try to give back to us, instead helping them amplify the power they possess and the contributions they can make.

    I know I’m playing with semantics here a bit, but I’m searching for the deeper meaning, not just superficial shifts in language. Maybe it starts with the assumption that the people at the periphery have all the power and the role of the center is to help set them up to use it most wisely. I’m just feeling a need to get away from the mindset that the core is almighty and all-powerful and that they get to give that away to others as they see fit.

    • 22.06.2012 at 11:08 am

      I agree 100% Jeffrey, and that’s ultimately where I was trying to go with this post. I’d like to develop a much different picture of what it means to be at the center of an organization (or the top, if we must). You’re right–it’s not about passing out power to the minions. I think we do that already (but badly). It’s about shifting our attention to the areas that increase the power of the whole system. In ways that respect EVERYONE’s power.

  2. […] has been sitting in my bag for a month. I never did a formal recap post. I did write a piece about freedom and responsibility that was a result of the conference. So yesterday I got it out and started reading my notes again. […]