ArLyne's Diamonds

A running commentary of ideas

Monday, July 05, 2010

Balancing Freedom and Control

“If it feels good, do it” seemed to have been the war cry of the EST generation. Never having taken EST, I’m not sure what they actually taught, but have known dozens of graduates of the program, all of whom seemed to believe they had been taught that they were not responsible in any way for the reaction of others to their behavior or words.

There are those who believe that Ayn Rand, who wrote “The Virtue of Selfishness” among her other books, was also an advocate of a similar set of beliefs. Not so. Ms. Rand, whom I knew personally and studied with in New York, believed strongly that we are responsible for our own actions. She talked about an individual’s rights ending at the bridge of the nose (both literally and figuratively) of the other person.

Selfishness, in the view of Ms. Rand who, along with Nathaniel Brandon, founded the Objectivist Philosophy and movement, was enlightened self-interest. That included a long range understanding of the importance of relationships, contracts, integrity, courtesy, a win-win in dealings, and keeping one’s word. Stepping on others was not in one’s best interest.

How much freedom should one have seems to be a debate among Libertarians, Conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. Each has its own view of what the government should or should not control. For example, the Conservatives I know believe in economic freedom, but are quite willing to have the government take control of many areas that in my opinion are best left to personal and religious morality. The Democrats on the other hand, espouse freedom of morality, but want to control your pocketbook, telling you where and when to spend your money (taxes). Libertarians argue between anarchy (“If it feels good, do it?”) and limited government – but then where and what are the ends of the limits?

All of this makes me think about leadership and management in the workplace. I’ve written elsewhere about the differences between micro-managing and abrogating responsibility, and as I write this I realize that finding the balance – the parameters – or the box into which people must work – has the same theoretical underpinnings as the values we hold regarding government’s control or lack thereof on us.

As an employee, I want the widest range of freedom possible. Just tell me what you need to have done and let me loose to do it well. As an employer, I want to assure that my employees are being as efficient and effective as possible and am not so quick to give them all the freedom to choose their own way, time and place. What if they pick a path that is more time consuming, or less likely to get the job done well (translation – the way I think it ought to be done), or horror of horrors, what if they make mistakes that cost me a lot of money?

Where is the proper balance?

I think the trickiest part of management is finding this balance for each employee and for each project or task. The variance of need is great. If, for example an employee is new at your firm, you probably will want to have fairly tight controls, at least until the two of you have really discovered a meeting of the minds and trust that your assignments will be carried out properly. If, on the other hand, you are working with someone you have worked with for a long period of time and trust to do the job right, all you have to do is assign it and ask them to let you know if they have any problems, questions or need help in any way.

In other words, the most effective balance is determined on an individual by individual, need by need basis. Hard to do. Probably very time-consuming. The smaller the organization, or the smaller the group you manage, the easier it is to do.

But, what do you do if you are a huge organization and/or if you don’t really know your people since they live and work anywhere and everywhere in the world? Ah, that’s when tight lines get drawn. Policies and procedures get written and sanctions are levied when someone doesn’t color within the lines.

Balancing needs and wants isn’t always as easy as it seems. Balancing freedom and control is even a troublesome task for parents of growing children. How on earth could anyone in government make choices for the millions of people in our country?

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