Liberated companies – which allow their employees complete freedom and responsibility of action to carry out the company’s vision – have been in existence for more than sixty years. Gore-Tex, USAA, Harley-Davidson, Poult, the Belgian Ministry of Social Security, and many others, as well as their CEOs, have been recognised by numerous management awards. Since 2010, the third generation of liberated companies – multinationals such as Michelin, Decathlon or Airbus – has contributed to the emergence of a real movement for the liberation of organisations in Europe, including hundreds of SMEs and even administrations. Scientific jury members, auditors, experts, have all examined liberated companies in a very critical way. And the most demanding in this respect were undoubtedly the business leaders preparing to launch their own corporate liberation. It would indeed be irresponsible of them to embark lightly on such a radical transformation.
And yet, some CEOs did. They were satisfied with making big announcements, without seriously analysing and, above all, without making this philosophy their own. Some even proclaimed that the liberated company had arrived because the organisation’s management had removed time clocks or one level of hierarchy; and I am not talking about the installation of video games or siesta rooms… The liberated company is neither the absence of hierarchy nor the implementation of any model, be it sociocracy or holacracy. As I defined it in 2009, it is “an organizational form that allows employees complete freedom and responsibility to take actions they decide are best”. Later, I added “to carry out the vision of the company”.
The company is liberated to allow the employees to live a good life, not to generate profits
As such, the liberated company is not a model, but a philosophy based on the concepts of freedom and responsibility. It is up to the CEO to articulate it with the employees in the context of their company, co-creating a unique organisational form, which they will further evolve depending on employees’ psychological needs and the demands of their environment. For it must be said again and again that the liberated company is not to be considered as a means – another misconception that is used when this philosophy is not closely examined. The company is liberated to allow the employees to live a good life, not to generate profits. If there is the slightest ambiguity on this subject in the minds of leaders, the approach is doomed to failure. Certainly, profits are like oxygen to the company and it will wither without them, but we don’t live to breathe, we breathe to live.
Another way to live
When with Brian Carney, we conducted the first survey on liberated companies, we identified a few dozen in the world. We had very rigorously defined two criteria to make sure we were studying a solid phenomenon. Firstly, at least twenty years must have passed since the implementation of this philosophy. Secondly, after a few years of breaking-in, the liberated company had to have joined the top performers in its industry and remained such throughout the period studied.
Since the liberation process can only be implemented gradually, at least three years are generally necessary to establish the effective presence of a liberated organizational environment for SMEs and at least ten for large corporations. At the end of this period, it is necessary to check that the majority of employees have taken on the freedom and responsibility for day-to-day action. However, the early signs of this may appear much quicker. For example, one CEO tells how, very soon after launching the liberation process, the male operators who started at 5 a.m. began to shave and the female operators to put on lipstick.
It can make you smile, but if you don’t like your job – as is the case of 89% of British or 94% of French employees, according to the Gallup survey – you are not likely to make an effort to look your best at 4 a.m., before going to work! Which brings us to well-being – or good life, which is my preference. I prefer good life to well-being for two reasons. Firstly, the latter is too often confused with devices ranging from ping-pong tables to free yoga classes – very positive in themselves, but having no direct effect on the nature of relations between employees.
These devices can be part of a wellness programme, which is a stealth version of a work-life balance programme. Rather than harmonising work with personal life, employees bring some of their personal activities into the workplace. The pioneer of wellness programmes was SAS Institute – copied by Google in its early days, right down to the free M&Ms – which incorporated them as human resource mechanisms to retain experts in demand in the market. And it works. The employees put these companies at the top of the Great Place to Work or Best Companies To Work For rankings.
The end of old paradigms
However, there is a duality in these rankings, as their presentation by Fortune magazine demonstrates: “Come for the generous sabbaticals, all-expenses-paid trips, or eye-popping bonuses, but stay for the parental leave, visionary management, and sense of purpose.” Some companies are in these rankings not for their wellness programmes but for their organisational environment.
This is the case for liberated companies. They have transformed workplace relations based on subordination and control – the primary source of stress in business – into relations based on trust and self-control. In this, these organizations have created the conditions for employees’ good life. Because the liberated company philosophy aims to change the very nature of relations between employees, it is considered a social innovation. However, abandoning old paradigms is more difficult than inventing new ways of living and thinking.
These old paradigms include the idea that work is opposed to life rather than being an essential part of it; that employees are children to be cared for rather than adults capable of caring for themselves; that managers are experts who give orders and control, rather than leaders serving those who know (because they do); that a work organisation is a mechanism imposed on employees, rather than an organic and evolving form built with and by them; that the boss is only interested in the performance and sees employees as a means, rather than aspiring to create the conditions for their good life with, as a consequence, better performance. Old paradigms die hard, and this is normal. Let’s understand those who are attached to the old paradigms and let time and facts show where the new ones lead us.
This article is based on an op-ed published in french magazine Management.