Hiring Adults? How About Treating Them As Adults Too?

If you’re a manager or a C-level executive, take a minute to consider this: Who do you think works for you? An adult who is capable of sound decisions and strong actions? Or, a (wo)man-child who needs hand-holding every step of a process? If you chose the first option, you’re probably wrong.

Most corporate cultures have infantilized the workplace so much that there’s hardly any room for innovative risk-taking; boarding-school like conformity to rules; and no freedom to take autonomous decisions that may sometimes end in failure.


The Industrial Era Is Over

Such dumbing down of corporate work life made absolute sense in the Industrial era, when there was negligent tolerance towards human error. When costly consultants reaffirm what you already know to be true; when every frontline conversation between staff and customer are scripted; or, when you already have a set of “best practices” put together by someone else, there’s no need for people to think, experiment or innovate.

Production took place like clockwork and everyone was happy. However, such codes, rulebooks, manuals and best practices prevent people from learning from their mistakes, growing intellectually and adapting to change fast. They make companies trust more in rules than in their people and that’s the death knell for any creativity.

People who go about their jobs mechanically cannot be expected to be engaged with it. For people to really connect with the work they do and be responsible about how they deliver on targets, the workplace needs to be like a laboratory: An unpredictable, yet safe space, where employees feel like they’re on a meaningful quest for knowledge and discovery.

The Curious Case Of The Receptionists

Semco’s work culture is well-known for its novelty and one of the practices that made it truly unique was the flexible work schedules. Semco employees could choose to set their own hours and decide to come in very early in the morning and leave mid-afternoon; or, they could come in late morning and leave late in the evening.

It was a system that worked and was very popular among employees. But, it meant that Semco offices were open much earlier and closed much later than other companies. The front desk receptionists came under the scanner when the Brazilian government introduced a legislation that prohibited receptionists from working for more than six hours.

The problem was particularly unique for Semco because the front desk needed to be manned during all the extra hours that the company was in operation. Any other company would have pushed the problem onto a manager, who’d have then tried to negotiate with the receptionists about shifts and so on.

However, Semco didn’t do that. Instead, they decided to treat the receptionists as adults and believed they’d be the best people to solve the problem. So, the management simply told the receptionists to make sure that at least one of them was present at the front desk during all working hours.   

Trust That Adults Can Figure It Out

When the company made it clear that it didn’t want to control how the receptionists organized schedules among themselves, something phenomenal happened. Though nobody in the office knew which receptionist would be at the front desk at what time, there were no glitches in the system the receptionists had worked out for themselves.

The fact that they were given complete autonomy and told that they didn’t need to inform anybody or seek approvals, made it simpler for them to organize themselves without any problems like someone missing their shifts or petty complaints to a manager about the other person and so on.

If at all a manager had been vested with the job, things would have become highly complicated. The manager would have felt compelled to listen to the needs of everyone and it would have been impossible to create a schedule that accommodated everybody’s needs. There would have just been another layer of complexity if the management had decided to choreograph the whole thing.

Why This Team Kicked Out Its Star Player

Here’s another glowing example of the company’s commitment towards people behaving and being treated like adults: There was a factory employees who was exceedingly good at working with steel plates. He was so good that the plates he polished literally shone like mirrors. But he had no sense of responsibility and wasn’t a team player at all.

He was like a high-skilled lone wolf, who did whatever he wanted to do and paid no heed to the needs of the team. For instance, there was once some equipment that needed to be delivered by Monday and the team decided to work extra hours and over the weekend to meet the tight deadline. He was the only one who didn’t show up and pitch in with the team.

Eventually, he was dismissed from the company - but not by the HR or the company management. But by his own colleagues and teammates. One fine day, the team decided they’d had enough of him and went to the HR to report that they didn’t want him working in the company anymore.

The Adult World Has Consequences

Even though they acknowledged his skill, they unanimously felt he was disrupting the team dynamics and placing pressure on everyone. “In our team, we believe in trusting each other and helping each other out when necessary. But with him, there’s no trust,” they said. The team’s sense of responsibility towards itself and the company is key here.

They identified an individual who didn’t have the responsibility to behave like an adult. And the spirit behind Semco’s practice of treating adults as adults is this: When you don’t use the freedom available to you wisely, there will be consequences.

But what we see often is most organizations suffering from the boarding-school syndrome - which makes them treat their employees like immature children. They insist on telling people when to arrive at work, where to sit, what to do, how to dress, how to behave and so on.

Adults Are Great To Work With - Try It

And, that’s hardly the way to treat people who are discerning adults in their personal lives, where they budget their family income, nourish and nurture children, and make tough decisions when necessary. When companies treat adults like children or teenagers who cannot entirely think for themselves, then that’s exactly how they will behave.

That’s the reason why most people stop thinking for themselves, trying new things or taking chances at work. But on the flip side, if companies were to treat employees like the adults they are, offer them trust and transparency, and expect people to not just own up to mistakes but learn from them, then people will behave accordingly.

They will begin trusting the company and the leadership; will start making decisions after careful deliberation; take responsibility and pride in delivering their best work; and accept the consequences when things go wrong.

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