Friday, September 22, 2020

The Freedom to Choose . . . and the Time to Do It

Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century French political thinker and early observer of American democracy in action, considered that the most important aspect of individual freedom was the the authority to make daily choices:
For my own part, I should be inclined to think freedom less necessary in great things than in little ones. . . . Subjection in minor affairs . . . is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till . . .their spirit is gradually broken.
Today, “subjection in minor affairs” is nowhere more apparent than in the world of work. Not only are many professional people no longer free to choose how to spend their time during working hours—which used to be the distinguishing characteristic of being a professional: a person trusted to produce results without set working methods and close supervision—they are forced to work whatever hours the organization decides are necessary to accomplish its immediate profit objectives.

Freedom is based on trust, and trust is becoming a rare commodity in organizations today.
Along with the technological ability to supervise people more closely than ever before, executives seem to have lost the willingness to grant people true authority to do their jobs. For all the talk of empowerment, the reality is that pressure to produce more results with less time and fewer resources is causing many leaders to try to hold on to authority wherever they can. Freedom is based on trust, and trust is becoming a rare commodity in organizations today.

As a result, people are finding themselves ever more constrained by expectations and norms that they never chose; while the constant threat of layoffs hangs over them as an effective means of enforcing organizational discipline. As Philip K. Howard writes in The Collapse of the Common Good: How America's Lawsuit Culture Undermines Our Freedom:
Throughout America’s offices, hospitals, schools, courts, and public agencies, in roughly ascending order, people have been deprived of the authority to do their jobs as they believe is right and reasonable, and to judge and be judged on that basis. We’ve lost the ingredient Tocqueville considered essential to our national character; the freedom of spirit that comes from the authority to act on our beliefs.
The more organizations fail us and oppress us in the small things of life, the more we come to distrust them generally. It is as if those we trust to repay loyalty and effort with similar commitment in return have turned out to be cheating us at every turn. First comes anger, then a sense of needing a payback. What is apparently fair in the way we are treated by those above us—putting their self-interest above our needs and dues—becomes the norm for how we respond to them.

Unless people have the freedom to choose the small things in their lives, any larger freedoms have little meaning.
Thus begins a downward spiral of mistrust and selfishness that comes to infect business dealings generally. Unless people have the freedom to choose the small things in their lives, any larger freedoms have little meaning. You may have freedom to vote, freedom of conscience, and freedom of speech, but if you aren’t free to take some time off occasionally, or decide how you want to balance work with the rest of your life, you will still feel like a slave. Living your life in the best and most enjoyable way you believe you can is the purpose for which work is the means, not the other way around. If you cannot be yourself or live as you wish, what other freedoms are there?

There can be no trust without freedom, and no true satisfaction from working life without both.
Slowing down is not, as I have often said, merely about resting or taking more time off. It is essential to living a meaningful life—a life in which you choose your purpose and lifestyle, not one in which other people impose them on you for their benefit. Action can never produce meaning on its own. Meaning leads to action whenever people are allowed to turn their beliefs and desires into free choices in the world. There have always been those who want to impose their will on the majority, and there always will be. That is why taking the time to exercise freedom of choice, and making the effort to defend that freedom against all comers, is one of the hallmarks of a civilized society.

Tyranny—be it religious, political, economic, or military—always begins with oppression in the small, seemingly insignificant things of life, before growing to envelope everything else. There can be no trust without freedom, and no true satisfaction from working life without both.

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Anonymous said...


The sad fact of your article is that if they corporations respected and trusted their employees more, then the employees would deliver exactly what was required to make that corporation successful. So often in the past you hear of stories where the executives just bungles and screwed up so badly that it wasn't until they turned to the employees for help that the company turned around and was great again (ie Harley Davidson). Today, we see Ford and GM struggling, Delta, Northwest Airlines, etc. MAJOR spenders of money and power, and so often the showcase of what NOT to do. When I look back at all the succesfull projects I was on, the ones that really did well were the ones where the project manager didn't micromanage or restrict the team, but instead gave us free reign to experiment (within reason), create, and be the artists that we truly are. Great post, I shall CHOOSE to read it again. Thanks CC.

Dan H

6:00 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Dan.

You are absolutely right. Sensible leaders know that trusting their people is more than the right thing to do: it usually makes them look better and gets them out of all kinds of messes.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:22 AM  

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