In an exclusive post by author and marketing guru Seth Godin, he suggests that the next big threat to your business could be its rigid lines of authority. If you love your business, perhaps it’s time to set your employees free


Our economy is based on scarcity, productivity is the solution to scarcity, productivity is based on industry, and industry lives on obedience.

Do this now.

Do it the way I told you to do it.

Do it faster than you did it yesterday.

Why do we obey?

The reason we have wristwatches and time zones now isn’t because we invented the jewelled movement. It’s because we needed everyone to show up for work at the same time, on time. To obey. The reason we created public school isn’t because we needed everyone to know what year the War of 1812 was fought. No, we needed to train children to be obedient, to sit still, to thrive indoors for hours at a time so we could have enough factory workers to go around, enough that we wouldn’t have to pay much at all to get someone to give up their freedom for a professional life based on obeying the orders of someone higher up.

Disobedience is not civil, not as far as the industrialist is concerned. The mandarins who invented the insurance industry, the hotel industry, the steel industry… industry in general… count on one thing above all others: their people (yes, that’s the phrase, ‘my people’) will do what they are told.

When obedience is bad for business

Without this tautness [of an obedient workforce], the entire productivity engine falls apart. And yet. There’s a flaw in the math of obedience. Two, actually.

‘There’s a flaw in the math of obedience’

One. It doesn’t account for change.

During times of change, the rigidly structured organisation that’s based on top-down obedience can’t adapt. All it can hope for is painfully adopting a new protocol. But adapt? Innovate? Figure out what works on the ground level? It’s impossible for that to happen when everyone is obediently awaiting instructions. Every large corporation that has failed has failed while employees who know precisely how to save it have watched from the sidelines, because they don’t have the power to speak up, to change things, to disobey.

Two. It doesn’t permit human interactions on the street. It’s one thing for Wedgwood to turn out the same pottery day after day for a century, because the customer isn’t part of the production. But as we co-produce more and more, as the service element of every tangible good threatens to swallow the molecules and atoms that we think we create, human interaction is king. A bottle of wine tastes better when the sommelier makes it so.

Navigating human interaction in business

As we’ve approached the asymptote of efficiency on so many of the things we set out to make, the majority of value that’s created (above the commodity level) comes from how we dance with our customers, not in how obediently we produce what we made yesterday, but faster and cheaper.

And so, I hesitate to write about disobedience, because the word itself is based on a false premise, on the proposition that says obedience is the norm, the standard, the goal to be achieved, while disobedience is a rogue state, something to be avoided. When we ask (hard to command this) an employee to be creative, engaging and human, we are asking them to disobey.

When we ask her to speak up, to change things for the better, to be an independent, passionate actor, we are asking her to care. Not because caring is dictated, but because she wants to.

The industrialist sees this behaviour and calls it disobedience.

Imagine a hotel…

It’s a fine hotel in which each member of the staff has been drilled and intimidated into precisely following the 483-page rule book. A regime of fear, a reign of terror based on high standards, rigidly enforced. You can see the fear in the eyes of the junior-most staff, people who really need this job and are working so hard to obey, to follow the productivity-maximising playbook.

This hotel has no resilience. No ability to bounce back from an error or a strange request. This hotel is a rigid, fragile system, one that works efficiently when it works, and one that crashes and burns when it stumbles.

Now, compare it to the hotel down the street in which the staff is challenged to use their best judgment and is given the resources to actually do this. A staff that is trusted and trusting. A staff that in the other venue would be instantly marked up for disobedience, but one that in this setting, can’t disobey, because they can’t obey either.

Where would you like to stay? You can’t have down without up, in without out, on without off. There’s nothing to worry about from disobedience if we can eliminate obedience first.

Image: Getty Images

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