Why Not Let Employees Have It Their Way?

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I recall hearing a story about a manager who was frustrated because one of his employees, a business analyst, liked to work under his desk. The manager tried to persuade him that working while seated at his desk would be a much better idea, but the employee like the solitude and privacy under the desk. Finally the manager went to his boss, a director, in frustration and said “what am I going to do?” The director answered calmly “get him a bigger desk”.

Why not let employees have it their way? Employees are sharper and more creative when they feel an appreciative emotional connection to their organization, and this connection will be strongest when the employee is able to be themselves.

Unfortunately, most companies can’t even seem to honor the differences in major groups of people. I recall working in the Information Technology (IT) group for a company in which most employees performed manual labor. In IT, the nature of our work was totally different than a manual laborer and we wanted different policies. For instance, some employees wanted to take an unpaid leave of absence periodically, and this would have worked well with our project-based work where there are natural lulls at the end of projects. But because the laborers couldn’t take a leave of absence, which would have required temporarily filling their position, HR wouldn’t let IT employees do it. We had similar issues with telecommuting, flexible work hours, etc.

Employees have different personal preferences and desire different work practices. This is even more important for the younger generations. So what if you have an employee who likes to sit under a desk and he’s a great performer?  Who really cares? Employees are smart enough to tolerate differences among them. Perhaps the real problem is that the leader thinks his/her authority is being challenged?


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a writer, speaker and consultant helping organizations strengthen agility and performance by shaping emotional energy. She is a thought leader bringing to light the new science of group emotional energy and connecting it to business performance. She has had a 28-year award winning career as a C-level Fortune 500 executive and Big Four consulting firm professional.
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  1. Michael Maggiotto  October 11, 2012

    I agree! If the results achieved are in line with or exceed company expectations, the process that the employee goes through conforms to the values, vision, and mission of the company, there are no policy violations and no significant disruption to the business – let them do what they want and need to. It plays right to the heart of “happy employees are productive employees”.

    Of course there are times when they need to conform to their supervisors concept of accomplishing things, but weigh 2 key factors: The value of the Employee at that moment & The value of the Business at that moment. When the actions of the employee create a situation where the employee value is high and the business value of their actions are low, accommodate or at worst cooperate. If the value of the business significantly outweighs the value of that employee at that moment, then the employee must conform to the supervisor or company expectations. Anywhere in between one can collaborate, cooperate, or at worst postpone until further guidance is gained regarding the situation.

    Show your people they are valued and they will exceed your wildest expectations. Giving in to them on occasion is a great way to show them they are valued. But when you cannot, gain their feedback and give them yours so all sides understand each other.

  2. Barry Stein  October 15, 2012

    Hi Jackie et al;

    I am struck once again by how little we seem to learn from the past, and how reluctant we seem to be to try highly successful alternative work and organization designs. .

    On this particular point, for example, Ricardo Semler (See his book “Maverick”) owns an extremely radical manufacturing company in rural Brazil. There is no “management” and people decides what they want to do and what businesses they should enter, etc. His book was published in 1993, but of course this had been going on for some years.

    Or consider this. In the 1960s. P&G converted many of their plants to what they called the technician system (because that’s what they called the employees — all of them). The plants were run autonomously by their (extremely small) staffs and they essentially contracted with corporate to fill a certain order book for the year for a set price.They spent it as they wished. At one point, every employee in those plants were listed as “technician.” There was no formal manager at all. P&G regarded this as so successful that they forbade discussion of it outside the company.

    And there are many more examples like these.

  3. Fernando Lanzer  October 15, 2012

    I happen to know Ricardo Semler personally, plus the HR manager who helped him make the revolution described in his books (he wrote three).

    Semco was the company he managed in the 90’s and where the changes took place. It is not actually in “rural” Brazil but in Sao Paulo. The beauty of what Ricardo did is that there was nothing specially “unique” about the company which could be pointed out as a reason for not replicating what he did.

    The biggest obstacle they faced was the middle management. Like in Jackie’s example, the middle managers didn’t “get it”… They lacked flexibility and became the biggest resistance force to “let employees have it their way”. Some eventually left and were replaced by people with more open minds.

    Ricardo gives talks on his experience at Semco and he is a great speaker.

  4. Blanche Cordero  October 15, 2012

    I keep hearing the question about how do we engage our employees. Well, here it is. I think so many companies need to reconsider the way they are working now. The form of work was created in the 1900’s. This is like making kids in school show their teachers how they got the answer to a problem. Well what happens to the kid who has the answer just pop into his brain. We give him points off and don’t advance him. After a while he loses interest.

    So if you have an employee who likes to sit under a desk and he/she is an awesome performer, who really cares. It’s usually the person in the corner who can’t stand change or the boss who thinks his authority is being challenged. Here we go again – command and control.

  5. Jackie Barretta  October 15, 2012

    Blanche, you make a great point about the problem being that the boss thinks his authority is being challenged. I think you’re right!

  6. Jim Muir  October 15, 2012

    Following Jackie’s comment about Blanche, perhaps the boss thinks his authority is being challenged when it’s actually his belief systems being challenged. It’s a growing problem for “managers” who think things have to look a certain way. This phenomenon creates all sorts of “solutions” for engagement that miss the mark. The organization’s culture may be so rigid that it stifles creativity, innovation, productivity, and satisfaction (happiness) of the employees. And we all know what a bad manager can do to an organization, but what if it’s the whole organization full of managers who groupthink the way things should be? I think Blanche has it right. At the individual level it’s easy to spot, but it’s a bigger problem than that. Organizations have to get off of the idea they have it right. What’s the return on investment for the workers you employ? Look at Mars (the confection company) for a refreshing way to organize.

  7. Reut Schwartz-Hebron  October 16, 2012

    Thanks Jackie for a great question…I struggled for a while with the concept before I could think clearly about it.

    It would be fantastic if the world we live in would be inclusive. If people respected differences…I can go as far with that as world peace…seriously. Unfortunately this is not the world we live in. Rick pointed this is out but I guess the concern is that if companies allow employees to do things that don’t match with the culture of their clients, they will get dropped in favor of a company that maintains that culture.

    But this is all changing because the culture of the new generation of clients is more aligned with individuality and inclusion than the culture of old generations. Perhaps companies like Google, Zappos, and freightquote.com would not have been successful 200 years ago. Now there are more and more companies that are (at least as a leadership statement- in practice it’s a little different). Qualcomm is a great example as are many of the “new science” companies like biotech companies.

    One of the things I’m fascinated by is in getting those companies who want managers to practice inclusion to overcome old management patterns…

  8. Jeffrey Levy  November 25, 2012

    Jackie – just saw your post, so sorry for not responding earlier. You describe such an important element of 21st Century work environments. After all, for the first time in the history of work, one of the primary requirements of workers today is to enjoy what they do. So – if employee retention is important, why don’t more managers think like you?

    As a consultant, the majority of most leadership frustrations I hear is when their employees don’t do things the “right” way. The fact is, there is no longer any one right way. Who are we to sit in judgment and say what’s right or wrong?

    Today’s most-successful companies are realizing this. They’re letting people be themselves, as long as it fits with company values. Maybe that’s where all companies need to begin. Establish the values and live by them. This way, people who want to sit under the desk will know before joining a company whether or not they’ll be happy or miserable.


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