Freedom and Responsibility: Walking the Walk

A lot of tech companies talk about “freedom and responsibility” as a key part of their organizational culture. We sell it to new applicants: “Work at our company and you’ll have tons of freedom and responsibility.” It’s a no-brainer… right? On the surface, it sounds really great, but WTH does it mean?

“Freedom and responsibility” is a phrase coined by the leadership team at Netflix in their famous, oft-quoted Netflix Culture: Freedom and Responsibility presentation. This utopian document articulates the organizational norms and behaviors expected of Netflix employees. Its 124 slides/pages, is loaded with inspiring and relatable language, and generally makes you feel like your company will never be as cool as Netflix. It’s been an incredible recruitment tool for them and has inspired many companies to operate similarly.

We too, have been captivated by the notions of “freedom and responsibility.” We have done our best to instill these words in our company culture and into the expectations of all employees. It’s been a wonderful recruitment tactic for us, too, and I can see the glow in the eyes of prospective applicants during job interviews when I impress them with my black turtleneck and free Costco snackage.

“With great freedom comes great respronsitrilitrence.” — Key & Peele

I bet your eyes are glazing over and/or you’re wondering when I’ll ever tell you what the eff “freedom and responsibility” means and what it looks like! Thanks for the reminder.

“Freedom” sounds awesome.

Who doesn’t like freedom (as in speech)? And who wouldn’t want freedom in the workplace? I’ll tell you who: People who’ve never really experienced it.

Why? Because freedom is uncomfortable.

It means there won’t be a manager peering over your shoulder several times a day checking to see what you’re doing. It means no one is keeping track of what time you come to the office and when you leave. It means you prioritize your work on your own. It means you are almost entirely responsible for knowing what work you need to get done that day.

“Responsibility” doesn’t sound as awesome.

But you can’t have freedom without it. As a manager, I can only offer you freedom if I know I don’t have to check up on you more than once a week… or two… or even three. As a co-worker, I can only offer you freedom if I can depend on you getting your work done so I can get mine done and the company can meet deadlines and make money. As an employee, I can only operate freely if I know I have the trust of my peers and my managers.

We’ve had several applicants enthusiastically accept job offers only to find themselves bewildered at the amount of freedom and responsibility they’re offered right off the bat. It can be astounding to start a relationship with an employer with such a degree of trust, and it can be a bit frightening. The person most accountable to your own success is you. And the longer you’re with the company, the more freedom and responsibility you earn.

That’s how it works, folks. It sounds simple in theory, but it ain’t.

What is the cost of this level of freedom and responsibility? We have to be vigilant about hiring the right people. And guess what: The right people aren’t always looking for a new job when we’re looking to hire. It can be tough and jobs can be open for longer than we’d like, but getting the right people ensures we can maintain our organizational culture. As we’ve grown in size, we’ve had to consider how we continue to offer high levels of freedom and responsibility, without depressing people with too much process and formality. It’s hard work! And sometimes we get it wrong by hiring the wrong person, or putting in short-sighted processes, or interpreting our business data incorrectly.

But that’s okay. It’s how we learn. And our people learn and grow with us.

Interested in joining us on this mission? We’re usually hiring. Check positions on our careers page.

Author of “Clueless at The Work” and founder of Make Weird Music. I write about management, music, and technology. Mesa, AZ, USA.

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