Let Freedom Ring!

For any non-American readers, here in the U.S. we just celebrated the 4h of July, which we call independence day. It’s a day we take to celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, when the 13 original colonies formally regarded themselves as a new… wait for it… independent nation. To celebrate this freedom, we typically get together with friends and family to grill out. Many of us take advantage of this day to light fireworks because it’s one of the few days a year where – in the state of Illinois, anyway – police don’t enforce laws against fireworks.

Wait a minute?! you ask, indignantly. I thought you said you were free!! If you’re so free, how come you can’t even blow up fireworks whenever you want?!?

Good point. I guess you can make the argument that we’re not actually, totally, 100%, no-questions-asked, free. And I think we’re better for it. Though I love lighting off fireworks as much as the next person, for the sake of our pets it’s probably better that they don’t let us do it whenever we want. Over the long-term, restrictions on fireworks, littering, burglary, vandalism, and other violent crimes make this a nicer place to live. The point is that, despite all the laws telling us what we can and cannot do, we mostly feel free. As long as our own enjoyment doesn’t get in the way of the enjoyment of others, we’re mostly free to enjoy ourselves.

Of course, as a behavior scientist, I would argue that we aren’t free at all. Much as the moon is trapped in a fixed orbit based on the laws of physics and its position relative to the Earth, so is our behavior trapped in fixed patterns based on the laws of behavior and its relation to objects and events in time and space. This statement may offend you. After all, it feels like there’s a you independent of it all that makes choices, and likes things, and asserts its will. From a behavioral perspective, however, that feeling is itself a by-product of the laws of behavior. It’s okay if you don’t agree with me on that point. In fact, if you disagree, there’s nothing else you could do, given the laws of behavior and your situation in the cosmos.

This is so deeply philosophical, I know. So what? you ask. The point is that, as Americans or just as human beings, we really aren’t free. At the very least, there will always be laws and circumstances, and those things will influence our choices and may even determine them. But we can arrange conditions where people feel free. And, if the assertion that you aren’t free was a little disturbing to you, then you know that’s a feeling worth pursuing. Here’s how to do that:

  1. Increase what people get for the work that they do. This can be done by introducing performance-based incentives, recognition programs, earning time-off, increased recognition, or some other rewards program. It can further be done by connecting the work people do to the larger difference it makes. In fact, the more you can draw a connection between the behavior of a person and the difference it makes in the world, the more in control of the world they will feel and, subsequently, the more free.
  2. Remove as much fear-based motivation as possible. It’s effective at getting people to get things done, but fear-based motivation comes at a cost. People perform just enough to avoid punishment and they’re stressed while they do it. And it isn’t always easy to spot when you, as a leader, are motivating people this way. But if you look at where your team is producing results and the only recognition they get is a continued paycheck and more work as it comes in, they’re probably working to prevent. To reduce this, stop here and go back to the first point. Once, they’re getting something for their work (beyond an hourly wage or salary) the fear will naturally decrease.

It’s pretty simple (though not easy). Whether you think that we all have 100% control of our will or that our lives are determined from before our birth, we can do a much better job of making people feel free. And with that feeling comes more productivity and better business results. As we settle in for the rest of summer, my challenge to you is to spread freedom to the planet. Let your employees know you appreciate it when they do their job. Tell your loved ones you appreciate them for the things you usually take for granted. Let freedom ring!!