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Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations and father of capitalism, told us long ago how important it is for people to be free.
He told us that dependency corrupts people and decreases productivity. One of the things he found so admirable about capitalism was the way it released people from the servility of feudal economies. Rather than having to please superiors to survive, capitalism freed people to be their own masters.
While this might be true for entrepreneurs, it is hardly the norm for much of our modern capitalist economy, particularly in corporate culture. Instead of the free and democratic individuals Smith envisioned, many employees end up like feudal serfs, spending their days trying to please their bosses so they can keep their jobs.
Not only is this approach bad for people, it is bad for business. According to a meta-analysis of 101 research studies, giving employees more job autonomy is associated with higher levels of job satisfaction, performance and motivation. Having more freedom and less servility on the job increases retention and productivity.
What does this mean for you as a leader?
1. Be neither a micromanager nor a bully
Deadlines are important, but let employees decide how and when to tackle their tasks. Some offices go so far as having very few or even no set work hours, judging productivity by accomplishments not hours behind the desk. Leaving it up to the employee as to how and when to do their tasks makes them feel more in control and ultimately more invested in their work.
2. Allow ownership on the job
The freedom to speak up, get credit, and take ownership for the work being done, even if the suggestions might not be what the boss wants to hear, has benefits for everyone.
A workplace filled with employees whose contrary opinions will be ignored or punished misses out on a wealth of potential innovations. Servility stifles creativity.
One of Adam Smith's many arguments against slavery was that, in addition to being immoral and financially irrational, work performed by slaves was less productive and innovative because there was no incentive or personal gain for improving their work.
A recent study shows that Adam Smith was correct; greater job autonomy increases creativity at work and so increases the in-house stock of potential innovations that can make your business even better.
3. Free up the office
The benefits of increased job autonomy can be realized through both structure and culture.
Some companies institute official policies to allow employees time to work on their own ideas. Google's "20 per cent time," which gave employees the equivalent of a full day each week to tinker with their own relevant projects, was credited with creating Gmail and other successful products.
This structure can also drive corporate culture. Give your employees more freedom to structure their work flow. Provide incentives to bring forward and be rewarded for new ideas. Try to make yourself open to things you might not want to hear, since it might just be what you need to know.
What Smith predicted and what the research shows, is that more freedom at work increases job satisfaction and performance while lowering emotional stress and the threat of turnover. Letting employees be free to take their own paths allows them to take greater ownership of their work, giving them the incentive to innovate and improve things, for their own benefit and the benefit of your organization.
As Adam Smith would be pleased to note, it is in everyone's self-interest to make the workplace more free.
David G. Dick, PhD, (@DavidGDick) is an assistant professor of philosophy and a Fellow of the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership in Business at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business (@haskayneschool). In addition to his research in business ethics, he teaches a course on the philosophy of money.