Happy Fourth of July to our American friends! 

On Monday, the United States celebrated its independence. Along with fireworks and barbeques, you’ll hear a lot of talk about freedom among Americans during the national holiday. 

This got us thinking and asking, “What does it look like for teams to balance freedom and management in the workplace?”  

More and more employees expect a certain level of freedom at work. Business researchers tell us that giving employees more freedom can lead to greater productivity, creativity, and satisfaction. However, managers struggle to find the right balance between the extremes of micromanagement on the one end and complete autonomy on the other. Ranjay Gulati at Harvard Business Review describes the problem well:

With the explosive growth of the internet and social media, people now enjoy innumerable channels for sharing concerns and ideas in their personal lives. Compared with these expansive platforms for self-expression, the workplace can feel downright stifling. The freedom of the outside world is banging at the corporate door, demanding to come inside. Yet most leaders are still afraid to open it, because they continue to view freedom and frameworks [or management] as antagonists in an intense tug-of-war. And since a tug-of-war can have only one winner, they pour their resources into regulating employee behavior.

We like Gulati’s working definition of freedom in the workplace that avoids this tug-of-war: “‘Freedom’ can mean many things, but here, as a baseline, it means trusting employees to think and act independently in behalf of the organization.”   

Notice his definition gives both parties—managers and employees—responsibilities in cultivating a healthy conception of freedom. Employees have a responsibility to think and act independently, not for themselves but “in behalf of (or in the interest of) the organization.” But managers have responsibilities, too. They must trust their employees and clearly communicate the purpose, principles, and priorities of the organization.

So how can you as a manager strike this delicate balance between freedom and management? Today we’re sharing 5 ways to get started. 

1. Communicate clear expectations.

Although the source is debated, it’s been said that virtues become vices when carried to their extremes. 

This is true of freedom, which becomes a vice when employees are given so much freedom that they don’t have a good sense of a company’s goals and expectations. They feel lost when they come to work without any parameters.   

Maybe you’ve personally experienced the chaos that can ensue in a workplace without clearly defined goals, expectations, processes, and procedures. You were frazzled because you were often in the dark. Your team might’ve been frustrated, too, because they weren’t getting what they needed from you, even though it wasn’t your fault. 

Communicating clear-yet-flexible expectations is one way to care for your employees so they’re able to work “in behalf of the workplace,” going back to Gulati’s definition of freedom.

2. Think of yourself as more of a coach and less of an authoritarian.

Adam Uzialko at Business News Daily says changing how you view yourself as a manager is the first step to giving employees more freedom. He writes,

Traditionally, managers give orders and employees follow them. To successfully change, you’ll need to view the role of managers as coaches instead of authoritarians.

Coaches guide, suggest, and provide structure for the team. They are still the leader, but the focus is on teaching and guiding, not ordering. This mindset also puts managers at the service of the team, instead of the other way around.

When you think of your management role more in terms of a coach or mentor, you’ll see employees begin to flourish. An “ordering” mindset usually leads to stiff rewards or punishments, depending on an employee’s performance . A “coaching” mindset gives employees opportunities to grow, even if they have to make mistakes and learn from them. 

Furthermore, a coaching mindset also puts you in service to your team, as Uzialko says. When you’re working in service to the greater good of your team and organization, employees feel they have an advocate. 

3. Empower people to tap into their potential.

A big part of coaching involves seeing someone’s potential and helping them reach it. When you view yourself as a coach, you’ll start to discover your employees’ strengths and praise them for those! Sometimes, they won’t even know they have certain strengths and skills until you recognize and name them. 

Here’s where that’s difficult as a manager. You might realize that someone has outgrown the position they were hired to fill. Maybe you or they have realized they might better serve the organization in a different role or department. Perhaps their skill set matches a need you’ve had for a long time, and your business has the funds to create a new position. 

One way you can provide more freedom in the workplace is to encourage employees to explore other opportunities at your company when they outgrow their positions or discover untapped potential. That might be difficult at first because it feels like you’re giving up your “A team.” But if you’re working for the greater good of your organization, too, then it will be stronger as a whole. 

When you give employees the freedom to reach new heights, they feel supported and valued, and they’re less likely to seek employment elsewhere. 

4. Invite employees to solve problems or give feedback.

A few years ago Mind Tools hosted a Twitter chat and asked people, “In your opinion, what is the essence of creativity?” Here are some of the answers: 

“My freedom to do my job. Everyone is creative in their own way.”

“Essence of ‪creativity is freedom to explore, express yourself without fear of being ridiculed.”

Mind Tools also asked, “What’s the top challenge in bringing creativity to the workplace?” People gave these responses:

“The workplace culture has to be ‘safe’ for prudent risk taking—and sometimes things WILL fail.”

“Control. Most workplaces and bosses want to control everything. Creativity needs freedom to explore, grow, attempt, even fail.” 

Notice that these questions were about creativity, yet all of the responses have something to do with the level of freedom people have in the workplace to speak their mind, solve problems, and take risks! 

Here’s the takeaway: managers spark creativity when they invite employees to solve problems and give feedback. 

As a manager, this means you must consistently balance 1) the need for structure and 2) the flexibility for change as a team or organization. 

You’ve likely heard the saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” If a business process—or a part of that process—isn’t working, it’s time for a change, and your employees might have the perfect solution. 

Communicate your trust and confidence in them by inviting them to solve complex problems or give their feedback—then follow through! This doesn’t mean you’ll accept every recommendation, but employees easily get discouraged when managers ask for their input but never do anything with it. 

Employees begin to shine when you act based on their feedback. 

5. Allow some flexibility in where and when people work.

Many companies had to quickly transition to remote work when the pandemic began. Now, many employees are preferring remote or hybrid work over in-office work all day every day. One way to allow freedom in the workplace is to recognize this change and offer some flexibility in where and when people work. 

Maybe your business can’t be fully remote. Good news: Jabra’s 2022 edition of the Hybrid Ways of Working Global Report surveyed 2,800 employees across 6 countries, and 60% don’t want to be fully remote—they prefer hybrid work instead! Of those surveyed who have full freedom to decide where they work, 53% choose a hybrid model. Can your company offer a hybrid model for work? 

Is there also a way to provide some freedom in when people work? Spotify, for example, provides holiday swaps where employees can work on a holiday and, instead, take off another holiday that better fits their cultural or religious beliefs. Some companies are experimenting with workweeks outside the standard 5 or 7 business days. 

When you give employees freedom in where and when they must work, they’re likely to be more productive when they’re on the clock. 

How do you give employees more freedom at work? We’d love to know—share your ideas and practices with us and our readers below in the comments section! If building more freedom into your work culture is a goal for you, we hope these tips help you get started. 

We’ve written about how automation can also give your team more freedom, and we’re always here to help you do that by maximizing your organization’s solutions. Schedule a call today, and we’ll share how our services can cultivate freedom and creativity where you work. 

Jessi Timmons