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The possible pitfalls of 'Liberation Management'

In LM, a widespread shake-up of how employees interact brings with it not just new ways of innovating, but also new challenges to the very nature of how the firm functions

Published: Mar 19, 2014 06:55:19 AM IST
Updated: Mar 20, 2014 11:38:49 AM IST
The possible pitfalls of 'Liberation Management'
Image: {Shutterstock}

Back in 1992 a researcher named Thomas Peters coined a term that seems to fit perfectly this age of a hierarchy-questioning younger generation. His concept of ‘liberation management’ (LM, for short) is built on trust by giving employees more powers to become commited and creative via flexible project teams. In this way, LM aims to increase dramatically the quality of exchanges between managers and both individuals and groups of front-line subordinates. Such a shift would therefore transform in-company dynamics letting these employees enjoy wider control of how they craft their day-to-day performance. The result is that creative action is encouraged at the front-line so ‘liberating’ personnel to achieve business goals. With rigid hierarchy broken down, innovation can come to the fore.

That, in essence is the theory. However, in practice people often struggle to adapt to change even if it is supposed to benefit them. Where LM is concerned a widespread shake-up of how employees interact brings with it not just new ways of innovating, but also new challenges to the very nature of how the firm functions.

To understand better how the act of liberating workers impacts a company, we studied a call centre whose CEO chose to champion the LM approach. The call centre industry is very competitive. In order to keep ahead of rival firms the company we examined followed a niche strategy, offering new added-value services to clients and always striving to improve these. Introducing LM was seen as vital in order to boost the sort of innovation that is seen as a matter of survival for the business.

Six months of observation, 37 in-depth interviews, general meetings and 50 hours of recorded conversation revealed that measures designed to free employees had also triggered unforeseen costs on social, political, cognitive and accountability levels.

So what really happens when top management require their front-line staff to act more creatively or to shape the path to be taken by the firm they work for?

Firstly, it is clear that LM radically changes the way front-line employees behave. Co-workers within the same division are no longer equal. Some have embraced opportunities offered by the project and, without any official recognition in terms of wages or status, are freeing themselves from their telephones in order to engage in business growth projects. As a result, some managers’ positions are becoming virtually redundant. Indeed, many of these managers feel threatened by a scheme that risks eroding all the effort they put into climbing through the company ranks. At the same time, a certain number of lower-level staff unused to assuming more responsibilities have trouble handling higher amounts of stress: higher stress which is not linked to the reward of higher wages. Such problems create a context best summed up by this claim by one of the front-line employees: “The idea is that people meet and know each other so they can talk together and find out new creative practices that will make the company more productive and hopefully more innovative. The problem is that everybody does not feel concerned.”  

The changes brought about by LM provoke the sorts of costs to productivity and performance that are not immediately obvious to those running a firm. These hidden costs of liberation are a direct result of personnel now spending more time listening, reading, questioning, and discussing the CEO’s liberation project. Furthermore, the process can change the organisation in ways that have additional and unexpected costs. For example, one person interviewed stated that LM was damaging her workplace friendships as her colleagues no longer looked at her in the same light. The scheme had in fact created more distance between co-workers who had seen themselves as friends in the past.

Similarly, another front-line staff member reported that when he took on the line manager’s role for one day a week his peers treated him in a way he viewed as both different and not at all desirable. Despite being told that he would not have to punish any unacceptable behaviour himself, he was asked to make notes on his colleagues and then pass on these notes to the management. Now his co-workers are wary of him and the team spirit which he felt part of before LM is no longer present.

Such experiences show that by liberating employees managers are changing the firm at an organic level. Workplace practices are altered as LM gains more reach and more front-line staff show a willingness to take on such tasks as performance and appraisal interviews with their peers. While such changes have benefits, the social dynamics within the company are being modified increasing the potential for the strengths and weaknesses of social ties among front-line staff to be revealed. For instance, because each staff member now gets to choose who conducts their evaluation interview, a mechanism for a public showing of the level of trust among peers now exists in the workplace.

Opportunities to participate and contribute to problem solving can also bring about varying levels of commitment. When those who actively embrace the openings produced by LM are faced with the proof that others are not so enthusiastic about the project social tensions can arise. Divisions can develop between those lobbying for change and those against such measures.

One manager touched on this when he reported on disclosures made to managers by workers who wanted to see the innovative project succeed: “Do you know what some employees said to all of us? Some of them said to their colleagues, “We won’t tell any names, but for sure some of us are working well …. We all need to do more and it can’t be acceptable that some of us are doing far less than the others!””  

As well as freeing employees, LM is therefore also forming new power relations. This means that rather than making collaboration between hierarchical levels easier, it is allowing power to be wielded in different and potentially disruptive ways.

Concerns about the equal sharing of the workload are also rearing their head. Those not mobilized for meetings about the LM scheme have to spend more time on customer service duties and therefore see themselves as victims of the changes. This comparison between those who are LM-active and their more ‘traditional’ counterparts is adding tension to the social environment across front-line operations.

Added to this rise in tensions between colleagues on the same footing are feelings of resentment expressed by line managers when faced with a worker who is now involved with the LM project. This is illustrated by one telephone operator who found his relationship with his line manager turning sour because of the changes brought about to his workload by LM. Each time this phone operator left his post to enter into the spirit of LM by joining the sales team in a meeting his manager reproached him for neglecting his duties and explained how difficult it had now become managing this activity. A feeling of guilt, which can be played on by managers who are under pressure or do not support the LM project, is something personnel may have to endure with little possibility of finding a simple solution. As was the case with the phone operator cited above, other front-line employees voiced their concerns over a conflict about their role and responsibilities which grew out of their engagement with the LM project and was in danger of antagonizing those directly above them in the hierarchy.

Even those members of personnel who back the LM initiative and relish the chance of being able to be more creative in their workplace can find that the changes the scheme produces may have a negative impact on their mindset. Being more creative requires a shift in cognitive activity which not only affects the productivity of the workers but also has personal costs, often unrecognised. These can include an invasion, at least at the cognitive level, of one’s private life. In this way, lower-level personnel who switched off when away from work stated that by being involved in LM they now found themselves thinking about projects and meetings when at home. Such a rise in personal creative investment often leads to the same workers questioning why their salary is not increased. Logically, more effort and a bigger role in the firm’s future should be linked to better pay. The data also suggests that these cognitive costs are becoming clear to a greater number of the firm’s workforce which in part explains why some employees choose not to participate in the LM project. That many of those implicating LM do not make allowances for the link between a change in roles and a pay rise is perhaps one of the main stumbling blocks to the theory’s practical application.

The notion of sharing and communicating on which LM is based cannot easily be criticised. Surely if colleagues act for the common good by working together then the benefit can be felt by all. However, it would seem there is a danger in oversimplifying. Active participation in new practices that empower workers requires them to share their thoughts with colleagues and therefore become responsible for what they say, propose and decide. The end result is that workers can then be held accountable by those affected by their decisions.

This increase in accountability, which is a central part of liberation management, clearly brings changes to what workers expect from the job and what managers expect from their staff. The LM project is implicitly redefining both demands and expectations and thus associated accountabilities on all sides.

When front-line employees assume different and more responsible roles they learn and exercise new skills (e.g., decision making, negotiation, organisational and strategic thinking, and ways of communicating/talking) that make the operational reality of their work resemble that of the usual profile of a manager. What the call centre we examined is learning is that liberation management produces liberated workers who see this similarity. Having seen it they naturally want to have their new-found freedom reflected in how their roles are perceived and rewarded.

Though the firm in question is aware of this, its current strategy is not one of reviewing salary levels. Instead, the management team has adopted a wait-and-see approach based on gauging whether the changes made will have the desired result of raising profits. While it errs on the side of caution, this strategy brings with it the potential for further costs in terms of the erosion of workforce goodwill. This is especially true for that section of the workforce that has embraced the project and now has expectations that there will be some benefit to be gained for having new skills and responsibilities.

All these drawbacks and complexities observed when introducing LM within a firm would seem to suggest that the process is too much trouble to be worthwhile. This is, in fact, far from the case. The key would appear to be better preparation and accompaniment. In all events, leadership training needs to be undertaken by both directors and managers prior to bringing about the sort of innovative and radical change LM can instill. However, firms should not just limit themselves to providing skill development that targets the development of relational skills designed to foster high quality LM networks. Our study also highlights how useful training can be in better anticipating, recognising and managing the costs of innovation. It is all very well breaking down an inflexible hierarchy but the flexible system that takes its place has to be able to take the company concerned forward. In short, any liberation of management has to be well-managed.

To learn more, see:
Mills, C. E., Arnaud, N., & Legrand, C. (2013). Explicating the discursive costs of innovation and creative practice. Paper presented at the Fifth International Symposium on Process Organization Studies, Chania.

Nicolas Arnaud, Audencia Nantes School of Management, France
Celine Legrand, Audencia School of Management, France
Colleen Mills, University of Canterbury, New Zealand

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