Regain Freedom at Work

Magritte, False Mirror

Magritte, False Mirror

Corporate Rebels United, Rebels At Work and Change Agents Worldwide recently organized an amazing 24-hour Rebel Jam where corporate change makers from around the world shared ideas and advice. The diagnosis is now well established: organizations must change the way they work. But how do we do, in practice? 

My contribution to the Jam consisted in supporting people who suffer from a controlling work culture and want to do something about it. Change agents, it’s time to be tactical! Here are 15 tips anyone can use. They’ve been useful to me and I hope they can be to others.

Why is it important? Because, in an environment that is control freak, where you can’t move, where you have to ask permission for anything, the organization is missing a great part of your skills, energy and enthusiasm. You lose a great part of what makes work interesting.  Prevalent parent-child relationship in the workplace shows how dysfunctional our organizations are.It’s astonishing that the same grown-up who can go out on a weekend and buy a car or sign up for a mortgage, must obtain multiple permissions to procure a new desk chair or try out a new technology back at work”, Polly LaBarre wrote for the MiX back in 2013. Employee autonomy is an engagement and a business performance issue. We need more of it, to push new ideas forward, to make things happen, and to keep enjoying work.

A controlling culture is a culture where management trumps leadership. Organizations grow by dividing tasks between expert functions and adding control to keep them working together. Leadership, which is the movement, the agility to progress through disruption, gets lost – or reduced to a few pockets in the organization. Control is not bad in itself; but it takes a balance between leadership and management, and too often organizations just don’t know how to do. Excess of control kills innovation and engagement. It produces companies people are not happy to work for, or to buy from.

So, here are a few things anyone can do. I picked 15 from my own experience, and would love to hear yours.

1.      Stop asking for permission. Don’t be afraid to consider this idea… Many people don’t even want to think about it, as if the company or their manager could read their mind. The moment you start thinking about it, you’ve already gone halfway. Each time you’re about to ask your supervisor an authorization for something, challenge yourself: is it really needed? Who said so? Why is it so? Can I do it another way, where permission is not required? Can the idea, the project… live with a “no” from my manager? Bear in mind, a “no” is not always a rational response to a question. Many factors can influence your manager’s reaction: politics, personal chemistry, a bad day… Don’t let the fate of a great idea lie in someone else’s hands.

2.      Realize you have more power than you think. Alice Walker said: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any”. It’s a mental frame that keeps us passive and silent. How could it be different when the issues seem so big, out of reach? Naturally, no one can solve world hunger or global warming on their own. But the tiny actions we can all do are at least a step in the right direction; when shared publicly, they have the potential to trigger a chain reaction, unlocking other people from the mental handcuffs that keeps them passive, as they realize they are not alone and powerless anymore. It can start with a simple email.

3.      Find the purpose no one can disagree with. Connect what you do with something much larger, which speaks to people’s values and to your organization’s mission. Put this purpose upfront, trigger discussions and debates on the big thing. Once everyone agrees on the “why”, people will give you more latitude on the “what”. Relentlessly come back to the big purpose you’re serving, when you report on your progress or push for the next steps.

4.      Find friends. Have fun. This is not small thing. Controlling, rigid, frustrating work environment can be very destructive. I've seen too many people falling into depression, cynicism, or breaking down. Managing without soul is a real epidemic, as Henry Mintzberg writes. That’s why it is so important to join forces with like-minded people, who give you strength and energy. Cultivate existing friends and make new ones. Social networks and communities of interest are powerful friendship growers.

5.      Map. Identify. Network. Lobby. Time to be political! Who can help you at work? Who can counter-balance your supervisor as an “authority figure”? You need to reach out to active or passive supporters, outside of your hierarchical line. Sometimes, it is enough to drop a name (“Mr. X said he finds the project very interesting”) to gain a bit of autonomy.

6.      Shine outside. Very often, change agents are better perceived outside their organizations than inside (“People outside are less demanding”, I was once told by a jealous boss). While frustrating, it is actually an opportunity – if you’re willing to invest some time and energy. Volunteering in a community of practice, sharing your knowledge in conferences, speaking on social media or a blog builds your expert persona. As an “expert” recognized outside, you are much more likely to enjoy autonomy at work and take control of your career, as John Stepper explains in Working Out Loud. External recognition is also an excellent bullet-proof jacket inside your organization.

7.      Involve external stakeholders. Bring in the outside! Having to collaborate with external stakeholders distracts a bit the organization from its own rules and processes. It must compromise. Find stakeholders who share the same purpose as your company, while being more agile. Not only does it benefit to your freedom at work, but the diversity of viewpoints is also great for your projects.

8.      Search for impact. Often, people don’t release control because the feel “it’s complicated”. You need to simplify = lower the bar for understanding. Do it by using marketing techniques. Create a catchy slogan. Use the power of analogies and metaphors. Use images, which are more powerful than words to create an impact. Know what to measure.  

9.      Claim big success. Even if it’s still work in progress. People will let you move forward if they have the feeling you are successful. Plus, it makes it more difficult to kill your project. It’s not about lying of course; but celebrate the small or big victories, even when the whole project is still under construction. Success calls success. Saying “Job done” reduces the apprehension that makes people prevent you from moving.

10.   Cultivate bravery. Did you know that bravery was a muscle? It gets stronger when exercised. There are many possible ways. Do sports. Read rebel stories and get in touch with them (they’re not superheroes, just people like us): Corporate Rebels United feature the Rebel of the Month, Rebels at Work display Rebel stories, NHS’ The Edge publishes Radical profiles… You can as well knit (knitters take risks – just ask Helen Blunden!)

11.   Empower others.  Do what you preach. Lead by example. Role model. If it doesn't have a direct impact on your supervisor, it makes you stronger by aligning your own behaviors with what you want. You can also understand some of the resistance and address it better. Finally, it creates a support group of people – grateful for empowerment, therefore engaged. It multiplies your odds to get things done.

12.   Be faultless with ethics and compliance. Being a change agent doesn't give you the right to do whatever you want. You want to gain autonomy? The system doesn't like that. Be sure you will face resistance and attacks. It would be stupid to give the stick to be beaten… Don’t offer a single opportunity to be criticized on matters that are unrelated to the content of your work / ideas. Do your expenses. Follow the purchasing process, even if it’s a pain. Be compliant.

13.   Learn, learn, and learn. Learning makes you more knowledgeable – and knowledge is a power tool. The knowledge economy obliges us to become constant learners: it is “the literacy of the 21st Century”, as Harold Jarche writes. I can’t state enough how social networks are critical here, and it kills me to see that the vast majority of managers and leaders in big organizations still don’t get it.

14.   Deliver results. One of the best ways to expand your autonomy at work is to… have results! Do, act and deliver – don’t just talk about your ideas and preach. Roll up your sleeves. Produce tangible outcomes. Results are not just a slide deck or an event, but something that visibly and sustainably produces value for the organization and its stakeholders.

15.   Out-love everyone else. This is a tribute to the School for Health and Care Radicals, which once shared this beautiful advice. Your quest for autonomy and change must be done “with a smart brain, and a big heart” (Lois Kelly).


“Obey”: Work doesn't have to be like this. Change starts with you... What are your practical tips to resist a controlling culture? I’d love to hear from you.

[My Rebel Jam slides are available on Slideshare]