Fences Stifle Initiative

September 13, 2011

William L. McKnight is a former 3M CEO who saved 3M from near bankruptcy and turned it into a large, successful, multinational organization. In doing so, he created a corporate culture that encouraged employee initiative and innovation. His belief that people required freedom in order to kindle their creative spirit is captured in his famous quote: “If you put fences around people, you get sheep.”

You might also get children. Consider the words of Tony Schwartz from his book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working:

“The all-too-common dynamic in today’s workplace is parent-child. Most employers tell employees when to come to work, when to leave, and how they’re expected to work when they’re at the office. Treated like children, many employees unconsciously adopt the role to which they’ve been consigned. Feeling disempowered and vulnerable, they lose the will and confidence to take real initiative or to think independently. Doing what they’re expected to do often becomes more important than doing what make most sense, what’s most efficient, or even what might create the highest value. “

How can you tell if your organization has these negative “fences” erected around its employees? Here’s one great test: “If your manager knows what you’re doing all the time, you’re not doing your job and neither is he.” – Hew Evans, Sony UK’s HR director.

And whatever you do, don’t “take down” visible fences, only to replace them with invisible fences! Jurgen Appelo wrote about this in his book, Management 3.0:

“Often, when managers ‘empower’ people, they don’t give them clear boundaries of their authority. This means people usually have to find out by trial and error, incurring some emotional damage along the way. Donald Reinertsen calls it the ‘discovery of invisible electric fences.’

Repeatedly running into invisible electric fences tends to kill people’s motivation. They have no idea what other invisible fences surround them, and then they prefer not to move around anymore. “

Empowering people is certainly the right idea. However, empowering people does not mean that they have a wide open range. There are always constraints. It's a question of whether they are good constraints or bad constraints. I’ll cover more in upcoming posts.


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