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Our current beliefs around work tend to come from economics, engineering, psychology and parenting. Why not philosophy?

It might add to our thinking. Or it might blow our world view apart.

Consultant Peter Block and existential philosopher Peter Koestenbaum note we have encouraged leaders to be role models, have vision, be situational in their treatment of subordinates, and to take responsibility for the well-being of those they lead. That has led to managers being trained in techniques that improve supervision and help them to motivate and reward employees to achieve organizational outcomes.

“Employees have been defined as the problem and management as the solution. Employees have become objects. When we ‘acquire talent,’ we have made a purchase,” they note in Confronting Our Freedom.

“Philosophy takes a different stance. It holds leadership as a convener where each person is a participant in organized efforts.”

Free will is an important concept in philosophy. But freedom is rarely discussed in management circles even though employees crave it. The authors warn today’s notions of freedom are overblown: We think freedom is associated with doing what we want, feeling happy much of the time and, more generally, living an unburdened existence. That “false mixture of liberty, licence and entitlement,” as they put it, means when it isn’t available under our current boss or workplace we look for another.

“As long as we believe that our freedoms and well-being are dependent on the absence of problems, on our economic situation and on the actions of those we work for and live with, we are in trouble. We are particularly vulnerable when we believe that great leadership is needed for the world to work,” they say.

They argue we have an equally small way of thinking about accountability. We believe that people want to escape from being accountable and that accountability must be imposed. We just need to come up with the right formula of rewards and punishments to do the trick. When challenges arrive, just recast roles, targets and outcomes. But when people are held accountable, they redouble their efforts to claim what is theirs and to be given special treatment.

Instead, Mr. Block and Mr. Koestenbaum say managers need to see their task as confronting subordinates with their freedom. Those colleagues are creating the world within which they live. But it’s a partnership role, with adults, not a parenting role – important to distinguish because management and leadership approaches often stem from a parenting mindset.

You are not responsible for the morale and productivity of your subordinates. They are adults, walking freedoms, accountable for creating the world in which they live, philosophy suggests. You are not responsible for developing, nurturing and guiding subordinates. If people want to learn and grow, let them find their own mentors and apprenticeships and teachers. “The organization committed to confronting its employees with their freedom could support these efforts but not initiate and institutionalize them, as it now does,” Mr. Block and Mr. Koestenbaum argue.

Under such a philosophical approach, managers would not stop caring about employees but would speak to them in a different voice. We would put aside our paternal instinct to take care of them and associated feelings of guilt when we haven’t taken care of them adequately. Our voice would be one of a partner, not a parent. We would not be responsible for providing the certainty they might crave. Indeed, when asked what the future holds, “I don’t know” would be the appropriate answer. We would be creating it together.

Anxiety would rise. But the authors say we need to stop treating anxiety as an enemy that must be beaten back with more structure and information technology. Anxiety is a sign that something important is on the table. It’s part of being human and part of organizational life. Shifting to a culture of freedom and accompanying accountability, in an era of entitlement, would help the organization. Taking on a parenting role just demeans employees. “If we want employees to be accountable for the well-being of the institution, they need to be part of its struggles and live with its vulnerability – even with the possibility the institution might not survive,” Mr. Block and Mr. Koestenbaum say.

It’s common these days to hear “failure is not an option.” The authors suggest that stems in some part from the feeling each failure is a small death, something lost forever. But denying death keeps us from cutting projects when they are clearly doomed. Managers often spin the news of failure in a way that makes people feel good about it. In doing so, we deny our guilt and avoid taking responsibility. Instead, the authors urge you to take failure as a gift-giving reminder of the difficulty and impermanence of life.

That’s terribly philosophical, of course. And they recognize “there is no language that the larger culture has less patience with than the language of philosophy. The first response to philosophic thinking and language is to want to get practical.” But maybe, as we return to the practical – economics, engineering and parenting in our organizations – we should keep these thoughts in mind.


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Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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