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How Employee Freedom Can Boost Company Performance

Google’s culture has raised the bar for the 21st century workplace by offering employee flexibility, perks and professional freedom. Laszlo Bock, Google’s head of people operations, suggests in his new book Work Rules! Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead that to create a positive workplace, companies need to take power away from managers.

In a recent conversation with Wharton professor Cade Massey, Bock explained that the same instinct that drives a high-performance individual into a management role can act as a detriment once they take on a team of their own. “As a manager, your whole mindset shifts. [Y]ou start saying, I gotta make sure everyone delivers. I gotta micromanage. I gotta watch things. It’s not intuitive as a manager to give people more freedom and back off. That’s one of the things we’ve discovered — that you have to limit the power of managers. Then people perform way, way better.”

Bock suggests that limiting managerial power offers employees greater professional freedom: “Managers have all these incentives to control and manage, but as employees, we want to be free. When we feel free, we do our best work.” Other aspects of employee freedom have become talking point in recent years, with forward-thinking companies implementing flexible hours, remote jobs and even open workflows to gain a competitive edge in their talent acquisition and retention efforts. But high-freedom strategy goes beyond attracting the best employees and can directly impact company success.

Harvard Business Review cited an LRN study that substantiates Bock’s perspective with clear statistics. Nathaniel Koloc shares in HBR that “companies in which employees displayed ‘high levels of freedom’ in their relationships were 10-20 times more likely to outperform companies with low freedom scores.” LRN breaks down employee freedom into two separate but complementary components: freedom from restrictive management styles and freedom to align with “shared objectives and mutually positive outcomes.”

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 8.51.59 AMImage Source: LRN Freedom Report

Google embodies both components of a high-freedom company by limiting the reach of managers, while uniting employees with shared values and a sense of meaning. Bock believes that any company can implement this approach, citing examples like Wegmans, a successful grocery chain and Brandix, a textile manufacturer. As Bock states, “…lots of companies of different sizes have done it and what they generally find is you actually end up with better economics rather than worse.”