From government to business, the word freedom automatically evokes emotion and creates action. If freedom is taken away it creates the action of rebellious destruction—silently or out loud. When genuinely given, freedom creates fluidity and the ability to act and create independently. If you want a healthy business where people generate new ideas and show up with a good attitude, then freedom needs to be a foundational operating principle for your business.
Giving people freedom means letting them express themselves freely, openly, and without hesitation. True freedom comes with a feeling of being protected and safe from having to experience shame, physical harm, hurt, or guilt. From small mom-and-pop shops to large international conglomerates, business wars for freedom are being waged every day. People want freedom, and many leaders are fearful of relinquishing control. The battle can become fierce enough that it’s like World War III is erupting in the workplace. The difference in business is that people can’t always see the war happening with their eyes; they can only feel it, and they don’t even know it’s a war. They call this war business-as-usual activity.
I love that statement—business-as-usual activity. I think it’s my favorite dysfunctional thing I hear leaders say. “We want performance. We want people to be energized and engaged. We want to be innovative. We want people to show up with a great attitude. But we want it in our traditional, prescriptive, hierarchical culture that’s rooted in standard operating processes that are designed to keep the machine moving. That’s how good businesses are run, and how lots of money is made. Change is good, as long as it fits within our business-as-usual activity.” Uh, hello? KNOCK KNOCK. Is anyone home? You can’t have what you’re saying you want in the traditional, prescriptive, hierarchical culture you’ve created. It’s not possible. That’s like telling a nation of people they’re free, getting their hopes up, creating an excitement that they can finally breathe again, and then turning around and taking all their rights away. “Oh, just joking. You didn’t think we were actually going to change the way we do things, did you? Oops. No. We didn’t like that idea. It didn’t fit into our comfort zone. Sorry. But if you have any ideas that fit directly inside our box we’ll consider the possibility.” Now the business has one or thousands of people who are angry birds dumping toxic energetic green slime into the business. Or worse, the business now has one or thousands of apathetic people who really don’t care what happens to the business as long as they keep getting paid. People’s thoughts and emotions start creating energy that takes the form of silent but deadly arsenic being pumped into the business, and the business gets exactly what it wanted—business-as-usual activity.
Remember this–people are driven to live out a purpose. People perform when they can spread their wings and fly. People want to be free to live their purpose in this world, and when they do there’s nothing they can’t accomplish. When they do, your business benefits tenfold. Freedom is the essence of who we are as human beings, regardless of our environment. Freedom is the answer to the question Sam was asking. Freedom is the answer to the question, “How does our business become innovative, and create a healthy culture where people want to work and want to be engaged?” Freedom is what’s next. It’s freedom a business needs to give, embrace, and live if it wants innovation and energy. Freedom is what turns ideas and vision into reality, and it’s what will drive profits for your business in the future. Without giving people freedom your business won’t be able to achieve healthy energy and innovation. The only way your business will attain freedom is if your leaders are functional and clearly understand how to give permission and protection.
All that said, leadership functionality is what needs to come first. The energetic health of your leaders is the most important priority of your business and its financial success—period. It doesn’t matter if you’re the CEO of a billion-dollar company or the owner of an ice-cream shop, the only way your business will become innovative and drive profits while circulating healthy energy is if you own the fact that you and all the leaders in the business need to become functional. Furthermore, the only way leadership functionality can happen is if you and all the leaders in the business own the fact that you’re all currently dysfunctional. That’s step one: awareness. Choose to own the fact that you’re dysfunctional. Choose to own the fact that your leadership dysfunction is the reason your business isn’t achieving exactly what it wants to achieve. Choose to own the fact that your fear of letting go of control, power, and money is the reason why you’re not giving people the freedom they need to move your business forward. Own it, and then have the courage to choose to do whatever it takes to get functional. The process of attaining leadership functionality, modeling high-character values, and helping to circulate healthy energy throughout the business is outlined in my book Fuel Your Business.
Again, owning leadership functionality is your first priority if you want people to surface new ideas, if you want a culture that thrives on a good attitude, if you want collaboration, and if you want the business to be seen by the public as socially responsible— all characteristics of an energetically healthy business that succeeds at innovation. You can’t have an innovative business that turns ideas and vision into reality when leaders choose to model characteristics that derail innovation—you’re either all in or all out. You need to make a choice. If you’re all in, you need to own it all the way. And owning it means you that you need to take a good solid look in the mirror, name your dysfunction, admit that you’re the problem, and then make a choice to get energetically healthy.
Permission is the second element of freedom, and is the act of giving people consent to make decisions, exercise good judgment, and express viewpoints and ideas openly. Giving permission is how the business becomes fueled with good energy. In Chapter 4 we saw that people want permission to spread their wings and fly. When they feel free to do so there’s nothing they can’t accomplish. In business, because of the structures and systems we’ve created, people need to hear from the leaders of the business that they have permission to move forward in their own way. Even if you are a leader who naturally gives people permission, don’t assume that people don’t need to hear the words—they do.
Now here’s the challenge. Yes, everyone wants and needs freedom. And yes, giving everyone freedom in business is how ideas and vision become reality. That being said, people will resist the freedom you’re trying to give them. So this permission/freedom thing is going to be work for the leaders of the business. People want the permission to make decisions freely, but when it’s granted they will get scared of potential repercussions, and their actions will ask for their freedom to be taken away again. It’s similar to someone who gets released after being in the penitentiary for 20 years, and intentionally does something wrong in order to get back behind bars—it’s because of fear of the unknown. Even though freedom gives people what they want, and freedom is how healthy energy in a business is accomplished, once people have it they will become afraid of the new responsibility. People will fear failing, repercussions, and the unknown. To most people the thought of failing, and the thought of the unknown, is a thousand times scarier than the thought of remaining behind bars unable to ever spread their wings and fly. If your business is going to benefit from creating an operating model based on giving people freedom, the leaders have no choice but to extend protection.
Protection is the third element of freedom. Protection simply means that you follow through on the permission you’ve given people to do their job in their own unique way. Protection means that you allow people to experience mistakes as learning opportunities, rather than delivering harsh consequences when things don’t go exactly as planned. Protection is about supporting people, and trusting that they’ll get to the destination even if they get there differently from how you would have done it. Protection means that leaders take the time to mentor and coach people rather than just jumping in and fixing, changing, and doing people’s jobs for them. Protection is the last element of freedom, because it’s the action that brings leadership functionality and permission to life.
The reason why leadership functionality is critical, is because in order for freedom to exist every leader must be able to model high-character values. When you grant permission, initially people will get excited, but will inevitably come back to expecting you to answer the question, give them a roadmap, and take charge. At first, people will have no idea how to handle freedom. Leaders have to be healthy enough to patiently ask questions, reinforce that they believe people have the skills and ability to make decisions, provide unwavering support in the form of mentoring and coaching, and exercise restraint so they don’t just jump in and try to fix problems or go back on their promise of freedom. If leaders fail to protect, and go back on their promise of freedom, the energy in your business will become worse than when you started.
It’s going to take at least 90 days of every leader physically showing high-character values and functional leadership skills for people to even begin to trust that this “freedom thing” is real—and not just another flavor of the month. It’s going to take at least 90 days for people to begin believing that it’s actually okay to freely take care of their part of the business and surface new ideas without suffering harsh repercussions from higher-ups. It will take at least 90 days for the idea of freedom to start becoming an accepted concept in your business, because it’s going to take time for people to start feeling as though they can actually express themselves freely, openly, and without hesitation, and feel protected and safe from having to experience shame, physical harm, hurt, or guilt if they mess up. In some businesses freedom will take much longer than 90 days, because the timeframe is contingent on how toxic the energy of the business was when the freedom process started.
Gina Soleil, is a speaker and acclaimed author of Fuel Your Business: How to energize people, ignite action and drive profit. She blogs and speaks about how to create a business where people are energized, feel good and are happy. Visit Gina Soleil and follow her on Twitter.