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Striking a Balance in Management: Flexibility Vs. Rigidity

“Striking a Balance in Management: Flexibility Vs. Rigidity”

Can you increase productivity by using fewer rules? Try placing more responsibility on your employees and let them manage themselves.


We live in the Information Age — an era in which knowledge and creativity have nearly completely replaced manual labor and physical strength as the most valuable employee attributes. Fifty years ago — or even 20 for that matter — managing personnel was much easier: Simply keep them moving throughout their entire shift, and the supervisor was said to be doing a good job.

Today’s employees not only crave a more leisurely management style, the very nature of the workplace and the work to be done demands it. However, old-school management experts claim that chucking rigid policies and allowing employees to manage themselves is akin to letting the lunatics run the asylum. On the other hand, employees say they can do a better job and accomplish more in a shorter period of time when the tight fist of management loosens its hold and allows them a certain degree of freedom.

In this Quick-Read, you will learn:

  • How loosening the grip on employees may promote creativity.


Many managers and business owners are pondering the question of how to strike a balance between the kinds of rules and policies that lend a sense of structure to the business and the freedom employees feel helps them do their best. For starters, traditional managers need to change their approach from that of managing employees to one of leading them.

  • The more initiative you need employees to take, the more important it is to loosen the reins. How? Instead of telling employees how to do a job, simply tell them what job you need done. Allow them to use their own ingenuity to find the path from point A to point B. Rather than encouraging competition between employees, encourage teamwork. If one employee doesn’t know the answer to a problem, suggest that the employee consult with a co-worker.
  • Don’t require that highly talented employees take the next step up the corporate ladder in order to receive a raise or even maintain their employment. Instead, allow them to tell you their career goals. Remember, some employees were meant to be managers, while others get joy from simply performing better and better the tasks at which they excel.
  • Recognize that employees often know the right path to choose and the most appropriate resources to utilize without constantly being instructed by someone higher in the organization. That doesn’t entail abolishing all deadlines, workplace rules and processes in order to encourage creativity, however. Simply trust employees to figure out how best to meet those pesky deadlines. What happens in the meantime is largely irrelevant, as long as the work gets done and the customer — internal or external — is satisfied.
  • Maintain an open and welcoming presence. Sure, some employees will take the ball, run with it, and you won’t hear much from them until they need resources to accomplish their assignments or are ready to unveil their impressive results. Other employees may need more guidance and supervision, however. Don’t force it upon them, but don’t refuse them the benefits of your experience either.

One of the most often forgotten aspects of the new style workplace — and one of the reasons so many have failed — is the absolute necessity to provide feedback. Few things are more valued by employees who have been working on a project, perhaps for weeks or months before presenting their efforts for management’s approval. The process begins even before project work is initiated. At that point, management needs to set clear expectations before backing up and allowing that employee to shine on his or her own. Once the work is completed, it is then easy to tie criticism back to the initial expectations and explain why the project did or did not work. However, be careful not to use this as an opportunity to tell employees how you feel the project should be fixed — give them the opportunity to show you what they’ve got. Many employees will truly rise to the occasion when given such a challenge and be highly motivated to knock your socks off. As a result, the finished project will often be even better than you had hoped for.


Rich Nadler feels he has found the perfect balance between rules and creativity. As president of Perseus Development Group, an upstart software company in Braintree, Mass., Nadler finds himself surrounded by young, creative types all the time. He was quick to recognize that creativity doesn’t always observe a nine-to-five workday rule. Nadler still requires employees to be in the office during standard business hours to meet with co-workers and clients as needed. However, he is not the least bit fazed when many of those employees don’t seem to be accomplishing much during their office hours. "Some of them walk around the office in a fog, but when I come in in the morning, I will have seven e-mails sent between 2 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. with these really incredible ideas," says Nadler. "Keeping hands off as management and trusting them to do the work is an important aspect of it."

Nadler occasionally allows employees to work at home if they feel they will be more productive in that setting. He also has a group of employees who are fanatical science-fiction fans. Whenever a new Star Wars or Star Trek epic is released, they typically sneak off for an afternoon at the nearest movie theater. Nadler doesn’t even count those excursions as absences, recognizing that his employees always manage to get the work done, even if not in the conventional manner.

With a young, hip workforce, Nadler often encounters issues involving somewhat unconventional personal appearance. Rather than enforce a strict dress code, he encourages employees to be themselves every day in the office, even if that means decorating their workspace with characters from The Far Side comic strip or coming to work with purple hair, nose rings and a pierced tongue.

Nadler faced the issue of personal appearance head-on when Deidre, his most flamboyant employee, asked to participate in a large training session for a New York State psychiatric organization. Although she volunteered to tone down her appearance for the event — removing her nose rings and dying her hair black — Nadler encouraged her to perform the training in the style with which she was comfortable, rather than conform to more conservative standards. In the end, says Nadler, his approach turned out to be a win-win for everyone involved. He earned the respect of an outstanding employee, and the psychiatric association sent him a thank-you note, praising the presentation of his purple-haired, pierced employee.

"We try very hard to value the people based on their ability and what they do," says Nadler. "We try not to place any prejudgments or values on how they dress or their appearances."

DO IT [top]

  1. Meet with employees, either one-on-one or in groups, in order to assess the level of their satisfaction with your company’s existing structure. Some employees thrive on rules and may be quite pleased with a micromanagement approach. More often than not, however, employees are bound to reply that they wouldn’t mind a little more flexibility — more freedom to create their own solutions and perhaps even the ability to decide when and where their work will be done.
  2. Examine the nature of your business to determine how much flexibility you can build into the structure. Is your workplace one in which employees must always be available to meet with clients or collaborate with fellow workers? If so, then a standard workday policy should probably remain in place. However, if employees need only be available at predetermined times, then it may be reasonable to allow them to come in to work when they feel they will be the most productive. If an employee is more productive later in the day, it may make more sense to allow the employee to put in hours in the afternoon or evening or perhaps even work at home.
  3. Strike a balance between a strict policy and complete freedom. Be available to those employees who need more guidance than others. Also be sure to give feedback to workers, so they won’t feel all their hard work has been performed in vain.
  4. Let others know that you have made loosening the reins an objective, and ask them to share their ideas on when and how to do it well. Ask someone you won’t stay mad at, perhaps your administrative assistant, to let you know whenever you forget and resume an autocratic mode. Try to watch what you say to employees as if you were a third party, and grade yourself on sincerity when you thank them for letting you know when you backslide.



1001 Ways To Energize Employees by Bob Nelson (Workman, 1997).

Win Win Management: Leading People in the New Workplace by George Fuller (Prentice Hall, 1998).

Human Side of Enterprise by Douglas McGregor (McGraw-Hill, 1985). Originally published in 1960, McGregor’s classic Theory X, Theory Y worker-empowerment book provided the basis for most everything written since on the subject.

Internet Sites

"A Little Kindness Goes a Long Way ,&#34 by Beth W. Herman. Legal Times (May 4, 2000). Law.com.

"How to Motivate Today’s Worker,&#34 by Karen Lawson. Edward Lowe Foundation Business Builder, 1996.

"We Can’t Manage as We Did Ten Years Ago,&#34 by James C. Smith. EntreWorld.org.

"Danger: Toxic Company,&#34 by Alan M. Webber. Fast Company 19 (November 1998), 152+.

Article Contributors

Writer: Julie Cook

Interview with Mark Hornung, vice president, area director, Pacific Region, JWT Specialized Communications, San Francisco, Calif. 415-955-2256.

Interview with Christopher Meyer, Ph.D., managing principal, Integral Inc., Menlo Park, Calif., 650-851-4750.

Interview with Rich Nadler, president, Perseus Development Corp., Braintree, Mass., 781-848-8100, ext. 268.

Interview with Morris Shectman, chairman, The Shectman Group, Los Angeles, Calif., 800-807-5906.