In September last year, Richard Branson, with characteristic flair and fanfare, announced that 170 employees at Virgin Group were now free to take as much holiday as they liked. His daughter Holly Branson had read about Netflix’s all-the-holiday-you- like policy and mentioned it to her father who, being an early adopter of flexible working, pronounced it “surely one of the simplest and smartest initiatives I have heard of in a long time”.
Commentator reactions ranged from effusive praise to sceptical carping about it being a trick. Even those trying to weigh up different sides of the argument pointed out that certain conditions were necessary for it to work in practice. For example, the company culture needed to be collegiate, with high levels of trust across all levels.
Then there were all the practicalities. Who would ensure adequate cover so there would be continuity of workflow while you were away? Who would set the new norms and what if your colleagues consistently took less time off? Wasn’t there a risk that the workaholics might step into the vacuum and thus walk away with sexier projects, promotions and bonuses? Wouldn’t it cause complications when calculating accrued holiday while on sick leave or maternity leave?
After the media scrum, disinterested observers could have been forgiven for concluding that this was one of those newfangled ideas best left to tech companies on the West Coast and the perennially hip Richard Branson. As a psychologist, I couldn’t help noticing how often the words ‘freedom’ and ‘ambiguity’ had come up in the narrative. After all, the idea that human beings struggle for and struggle with freedom in equal measure is not a new one.
Pursuit of freedom
In 1941, against the backdrop of WW2 and wanting to understand the irrationality of mass behaviour, psychoanalyst Eric Fromm wrote extensively about the paradox inherent in our pursuit of freedom that once attained, it brings anxiety, uncertainty and unexpected responsibility. His view was that these feelings become so overwhelming that people are wont to relieve themselves of freedom in order to regain comfort and security.
Fyodor Dostoevsky had already written evocatively about the same subject. Brad Peters in his Modern Psychologist blog deconstructs a famous chapter in the novel, ‘The Brothers Karamazov,’ where the Grand Inquisitor denounces Jesus for burdening humankind with freedom. Peters uses various quotes such as “nothing has ever been more insufferable for man and for human society than freedom”(p252) and “true freedom means claiming responsibility for our choices; it leaves humanity without a moral compass” (p254), to illustrate that institutions, in this case the church, give people what they long for – peace of mind. And the price that people willingly pay is…freedom!
Jane Pavitt, when looking at the enduring brands of big employers, such as Kellogg’s, Cadbury and Ford, described their earliest company philosophies as being similarly anchored in a benign paternalism, brimming with puritan ideals and conservative values. The provision of education, welfare and housing for employees by these pater familias was a “whole system” approach for controlling behaviour. Unwavering loyalty and adherence to rigid codes of conduct in exchange for job security and a better quality of life? For the working classes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a no-brainer.
Much better off employees of multi- national companies in 2015 continue to enter into psychological contracts that follow this well-trodden path. Most organisations have clear tramlines about how to succeed and how to behave. Those who don’t like it, move on. Those who stay, accept how much control and how much ambiguity they have signed up for. Which is why it can be so disturbing when one part of the equation starts to shift. More choice equals more ambiguity. More ambiguity means more to think about. The last thing most people in the modern day world need, or want, is more to think about.
But it can be done, although if you are successful at it, you are still regarded as an outlier. Enter the self-proclaimed maverick and corporate rebel, Ricardo Semler, CEO of Semco. Originally a manufacturer of industrial equipment, this is a Brazilian company with revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars, where
there are no job titles, no organisational charts and no headquarters. Employees set their own hours and decide on their own salaries. It is variously described as a “workplace democracy” and “participation age company”, where the only policy is that there is no policy. The guiding mantra is people will act like adults if they are treated like adults.
But it didn’t happen overnight. Two decades in the making, this is the story of a private company whose owner took it on a transformational journey because there were several burning platforms for radical change, not least Ricardo’s personal health scare and a severe countrywide recession. Rather ironically, it is far easier to get the collective to change and embrace new freedoms if people feel they have no choice. Significant step change at Semco was essentially driven by crisis. Fear of freedom was eclipsed by the fear of no work and no life. So, as for concentrated authority vs distributed authority – well, the debate continues. And with reports that seven per cent of Zappos’ managers have quit since March 2015, when their CEO issued an ultimatum to embrace self- management or leave, it promises to be anything but dull.
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