Leaders need to transform from parents to peers

The way most companies are organised inevitably leads to employee infantilisation

Consider the essence of the dominant organisational model, aka the hierarchical bureaucracy: 1) Higher-ups whose job is to instruct subordinates on how to work and then to control them, hence the hierarchy. 2) Procedures these higher-ups put in place to save time instead of repeating the same instructions over and over, hence the bureaucracy.

The message implicitly broadcasted to employees with these instructions and procedures is simple: 'You can’t do this thing on your own. Neither can you be trusted to do what you are instructed well without supervision.'

Psychologists know that when facing such 'parents' a 'child' reverts either to compliance ('just tell me what I must do and I will do it') or to rebellion ('I’ll make you regret your order').

Because performance rarely accompanies these childish behaviours, companies correct them in the only way they know: with more layers and procedures. Understandably, these lead to even more employee infantilisation, until the company is stuck in the grind. Then it proceeds with some kind of delayering and downsizing change project, which buys it some time. Or it is simply slowly crumbling under its own bureaucratic and hierarchical weight, which takes time too.

Meanwhile, the majority of employees continue in their nine to five mode, if not worse. According to a 2017 Gallup survey 68% of UK employees are disengaged in their organisations – the 'yes men' – while 21% are actively disengaged – the rebels. The collateral damage of the actively disengaged employees is estimated by Gallup to cost the UK £84.3 billion to £87.2 billion each year in lost productivity. But there is more. According to research, between 75% and 90% of visits to general practitioners are somatisations of work stress, of which the primary cause is the lack of control over one’s task. Think of the costs to the NHS.

This is a sad state of affairs and companies feel it. Increasingly popular wellbeing programmes alleviate some of the symptoms and make work conditions more bearable. Yet meditation or organic food to work stress are like aspirin to a fever: they decrease the symptoms but are not a remedy. It’s the disease that needs to be addressed.

The corporate liberation movement – involving hundreds of companies and public sector institutions in Europe, such as Airbus, Decathlon, Michelin, French Social Security and several Belgian ministries – is doing just that. A liberated or freedom-based company is one where the majority of employees enjoy complete freedom and responsibility to take any action that they decide is best for the company’s vision. In other words, liberated companies have unleashed previously-stifled employee initiative and potential.

As a result these employees go to work not because they have to but because they want to, and once there they do the best they possibly can. Some of the companies that use Gallup’s guidance reach 70% engagement – the typical level for liberated companies.

The Belgian Ministry of Transportation entered corporate liberation in 2014. Last week I was sitting next to its HRD before a presentation and he told me its liberation has attained a level where he doesn’t have to be there for the ministry to run smoothly. It was 3:20pm. Suddenly he received an email: 'To all employees – There is a severe fire at an industrial plant around Brussels causing major train delays from the main railway station all afternoon. If you are concerned please leave work ASAP to reach home on time.' The HRD commented: “Three years ago I would be summoned back to an executive emergency meeting to handle the situation. Today it’s the leader who was the first to receive the fire information, who took the initiative to warn all the employees, and to suggest they leave."

He further explained that teams in his ministry decide their schedules, place of work, and how they accomplish their tasks. In other words, they are not sitting in the office waiting for orders and asking permission for anything. And since they behave as grown-ups, naturally, there are no more parents around either. Former executives became leaders in service of their teams; as the ministry now doesn’t have ranks or titles (including the HR director, who considers himself a facilitator providing orientations rather than an executive).

Employees themselves take the initiative and responsibility for what’s best for the ministry’s operations. In comparison to the past these operations are far more effective and more in the interest of the transportation companies and the Belgians using their services.

This is not a surprise. Employees who are treated like grown-ups by their servant leaders carry it over to those they serve. Everyone gains from transforming an organisation from one of parents to one of peers.

Isaac Getz is a professor at ESCP EUROPE Business School, and author of Freedom, Inc.