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A Consultant's View

Prairie Trail Software, Inc. ............................................................. Jan 2010

Freedoms and Fears

After the "Underwear Bomber" tried to blow up a plane, the Transportation Security Administration instituted a number of new regulations on airline passengers. There are many security experts who believe that these new regulations will do nothing other than irritate innocent passengers.

This action and the reactions show some important things about human beings. One is the wide range of reactions to fears.

Human beings have vastly differing responses to fearful situations. A small number of people dive into them. For example, a number of years ago when a couple of bank robbers got into a running gun battle with the LA police, one policeman hopped on a plane to get back to LA so that he could get in on the action. Others cower and hope that it blows over. Still others demand that rules and regulations be put into place "so that this will never happen again".

These differing responses come from deep within our human nature. Different people react differently to fears. Specifically, some people want structure such as rules and regulations while others want the freedom to act.

Part of the American culture celebrates those who want freedom. From the earliest days, we have celebrated rule breakers and risk takers such as entrepreneurs, smugglers, capitalists, gamblers, and bootleggers. Yet, more people would rather have the security of a more structured society. We can see this how during the American Revolution, New York City was comfortable staying under the Crown while Boston (the smugglers' port) was the leader in the rebellion. Since the rebels and smugglers won, the US Constitution has that amazing phrase in it stating that what ever powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. We can and do take action before the government can or even knows of the problem. With the "Underwear Bomber", ordinary citizens took action instead of waiting for authorities to act. This is quite different from how people in some other countries operate.

The challenge to any management is that people do not always react as we would. I believe that the people in the TSA who proposed the new regulations did so because they themselves like to have regulation in their lives. The public reaction encompasses people who would live on the edge of life and would cheerfully walk the wing of an airplane if they could. Of course, these would have strong reactions against more regulation.

Likewise, we have managers who can handle people not rejoicing at the corporate rules and those who can't handle much dissent to their governance. The challenge to the corporation is to recognize when nonconformity to such corporate rules is out of creativity or rebellion (or in the few cases when a manager is abusing his/her authority). Most corporations do well to keep the creative person (in an area where the nonconformity will not harm the rest of the corporation) while easing the rebel out.

Structure and freedom have been in tension in the human soul from the earliest days. This tension is the greatest when there is a strong mismatch between how a corporation operates and the freedom and security needs of the people in it. Balancing these for the people we manage is a delicate act, yet one that gives strong results in how people stay with the corporation.