How Libertarian Principles Can Be A Boon For Business
Before you sigh contemptuously (“ugh, pick a party”), send an outraged tweet storm (“Gary Johnson is why we have Donald Trump”), or even high five in solidarity (“Libertarians are saving the world!”), I should note that this isn’t a political piece.
And it’s certainly not Libertarian propaganda. Indeed, your author is a Democrat with colleagues, clients, and friends across the political spectrum.
This is a story about how Libertarian principles can help to advance your business objectives.
These principles — chief among them a belief that people should live their lives as they wish, without fear of recrimination — have developed over centuries. And in the context of the workplace, they can foster a sense of accountability and empowerment that, unencumbered by needless red tape, drive business results.
That was the message I heard loud and clear on my first day at the marketing firm where I work.
While political ideology isn’t usually top of mind at the office, I couldn’t miss the conspicuous Libertarian signage on my boss’s wall. Nor the Libertarian spirit in his message.
“If you find yourself not wanting to come to work one day,” he said. “Don’t.”
My boss — the agency’s founder and CEO, Steve Shlansky — went on to explain a central tenet of his job: Creating a place where people didn’t want to leave. A place where smart and driven people have the freedom to do great creative work in the company of talented and interesting colleagues and clients.
“If anyone here wakes up and dreads logging on for the day,” he said. “We have a problem.”
And while Steve is a Libertarian through and through, I came to see that the Libertarianism he embraced in the workplace wasn’t about politics, but principles.
Specifically, I came to see how the libertarian principles that follow — when applied directly to businesses — can combine to create more fulfilled and productive workers, more creative and effective work product, more satisfied customers, and a better bottom line.
Government — and indeed management — by its very nature makes rules. But consider scaling back those rules at the office, intruding less in the lives of the people you’ve hired.
Nordstrom’s employee handbook, for many years, was famously a single notecard with a single rule: In all situations, use your best judgment. And while the company’s governance has grown and now includes legal protections you might expect, a dictum to use good judgment remains at the very top.
The trust and empowerment this illustrates — the company’s commitment to hiring good people, removing impediments, and empowering them to take decisive action in service of their customers — is integral to the company’s success.
In fact, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 63 percent of managers said they were held accountable for the results of their programs, but just 36 percent of them felt they had the necessary authority to accomplish strategic goals. GAO noted that "such an imbalance can inhibit the development of an environment conducive to achieving results."
In other words: Empowered employees are good for business.
A study at Pepperdine University’s Graziado Schoool of Business and Management showed, more than a decade ago, that of the top 100 places to work, those that had a culture of empowered employees also had the greatest valuation.
Employees who are constantly looking over their shoulders to get management approval, on the other hand, may deliver satisfactory results, but their work product will almost definitely be safe. And we believe safety should never be a creative consideration.
By allowing talented people to work unencumbered by management, you develop self-regulating employees who are free to chase inspiration and are in turn most likely to achieve true innovation.
Of course, with autonomy comes responsibility. Employees who are empowered to make decisions need also to be held accountable for those decisions.
Rule of Law
When we think of the rule of law in government, we consider the importance of everyone being accountable to equally and fairly enforced regulations — ideally, regulations that aren’t too great in number or arbitrary in nature.
In the workplace, we take that to mean that people are treated fairly but without gratuitous rigidity. Consider implementing workplace rules that altogether meet the following conditions:
- Hold employees accountable for their decisions.
- Protect employees’ rights to pursue professional satisfaction in many ways.
- Respect — better yet, celebrate —an array of viewpoints and work styles.
- And apply equally to all.
In an agency setting in particular, going light on the rules is a practical consideration. We service clients across industries, with all variety of cultures and brand identities and an equally diverse set of business objectives and priorities. While a standardization process might work beautifully for a couple of clients, it would quickly become a barrier to success with another.
So get rid of process for process’s sake. Instead, establish a baseline set of rules that protect company and client alike. Communicate those rules thoroughly to employees across functions and levels. Enforce them equitably. And then get out of the way.
That brings us to…
Just as some government is indeed necessary for a society to function, some management is necessary for a business to function. But it need not and indeed should not dictate every decision.
The key to a libertarian-run business is offering just enough managerial oversight to cover the business’s basic needs — think legal protection, financial management — without burdening the people who get the work done day in and day out.
Brands from MorningStar to Medium have embraced various forms of limited government, where employees self-direct their work, aiming to serve their clients and grow the business, rather than simply aiming to please a manager. Of course, Zappos is perhaps the most famous example.
And it’s a service-oriented approach as much as anything else. Rather than employees courting praise and a raise, they work to satisfy their end user.
“One of the core principles is people taking accountability for their work,” Zappos’ John Bunch has said. “It’s not leaderless….Everybody is expected to lead and be an entrepreneur in their own roles.”
Now self-management isn’t all sunshine. Zappos itself has had its pains, with some employees taking buyout packages and others complaining of chaos and insecurities about career growth. But many more report that, as the transition has progressed and they’ve figured out how to navigate the company’s quixotic structure, they couldn’t be happier. And business is thriving.
Natural Harmony of Interests
Why does it all work? When you hire good and reasonable people and you treat them right, there is a natural harmony of interests.
In other words, when you allow people to work the way they work best, with little managerial intervention, they perceive their work world as fair and just.
They are free to think more creatively, work more collaboratively, and choose their own destiny. They recognize a mutual desire for productivity. And they ultimately — sometimes even unconsciously — leverage their talents in service of the greater good.
This confluence of libertarian-influenced management creates a culture that nurtures success — for staff, for clients, and yes, for the company’s bottom line.