Book review: Freedom and accountability at work

Can the business world learn anything from existential philosophy? Do concepts such as freedom, good and evil, accountability and anxiety have any meaning in a corporate setting?

After reading this book by Peter Koestenbaum and Peter Block, I have no doubt whatsoever that the answer is a resounding yes. The subtitle “Applying philosophical insight to the real world” is beautifully realized throughout the book.

Existential philosophy states that freedom is a basic condition of human existence. We are always free to choose, and nobody can give anybody else orders. Every time you receive an order, you still decide whether or not to carry it out.

With this basic freedom comes some consequences:
* Anxiety over the choices we make
* Guilt from having said no to ourselves or others
* Death of others and the anticipation of our own death
* Evil, which exists because all persons are free

These consequences are what give meaning and texture to our lives. They are not negatives that a healthy person should avoid.

And with freedom comes accountability. You are responsible for the choices you make, even for the choice of whether to be accountable. Accountability can not be forced on anyone, it must be assumed explicitly.

The book goes on to explain many of these concepts in depth, also illuminating them through stories. And there are many insights to be gathered. The most fundamental result is a complete shift in the relations between managers and employees. If you accept that employees have this basic freedom, then some established facts of employee-manager relations simply melt away.

For instance, it is no longer the job of the manager to motivate the employees (as illustrated in this quote from the book). Employees must choose for themselves whether or not they want to be motivated.

Also commands disappear from the equation. Every order becomes instead an invitation. Many of the performance and reward systems instituted to reward or punish certain behaviour also loose their meanin seen in this light.

The new role of managers, (and indeed anyone else in the organizations) now becomes twofold: To realize ones own freedom, and to create conditions that allow others to do the same. This is done mostly by finding your own inner values, and helping other find theirs. This can be done through hosting the relevant processes.

It was also interesting for me to note, how many of the insights and principles I’m working with today can be arrived at from existential philosophy. I’m talking about the world view that says that emergence is better than control. That people must be respected. That you must know and act from your core values. That you must listen to and accept other world views and opinions.

I highly recommend this book. It is not an easy read, but it is certainly rewarding.

8 thoughts on “Book review: Freedom and accountability at work”

  1. Dear Sirs ,
    I am interested in your approach, and I am pushed to raise a question
    on how Managers shallbe eliminated from work of motivating employees

    I agree people are more effective if they are triggered by their own interest (intrinsically motivated).
    How vere the question is, these people must have all conduicive
    environments that would enable them to start their own self
    motivational motive
    This environment is purely external that may be enhanced by any
    one -managers, owners.. Therfore, although not as general
    deduction, the role of the interface between the the inherent
    behavior and the motivational work is the manager..
    Another point is from social practices, we always observe the following
    – Many employees are always interested to here appreciation ,
    (recognition from the managers . This appreciation may require to
    be supported by some material incentives to be long standing.
    Otherwise recognition is not a short term motivation instrument
    ofcourse without forgetting contineous changes to be made on
    type and level of motivational instruments
    – Children are motivated by appreciation of their elders
    – Students are motivated to work when they get appreciation from
    their teachers
    Therfore it appears that need for appreciation is not onl;y inherent but also shall be triggred by some external force. In this case I dont see any reason to completely abandon the roles of the managers , replacing it by giving freedom to workers taht would enhance them to be self motivated-
    More over this, how about the control that would go with accountability


  2. Theorectically correct. Practically a challenge. What you are referring to is empowerment and staff finding meaning in their work. But you cannot wave a wand and say I empower you and then it happens. It will be a gradual process.

  3. Nebiyu,

    4 years later (and probably too late), I have a comment on your question.

    Yes, children are motivated when their parents show them appreciation, but they are also motivated when there’s no one around. I have two children, and I’m sure of it (they are always learning something, but they call it play!)

    So, the question is: do kids need of the elders to be motivated?

    Kids (and all of us) have a need to feel part of the family, part of the “tribe”, but that’s something different, something that doesn’t have anything to do with recognition, at least not in the typical “incentives”, or top-down recognition way. In other words, kids need to feel loved, and it is best if they feel loved no matter what, because they don’t feel that the love that is given is conditional (read the book “unconditional parenting” for more information)

    Worst. If you create an environment where your kids receive “appreciation” only when they do something you want them to do, then they’ll feel that they are not worth by themselves but only when they act in certain way. Imagine that kid 20 years later: craving for recognition, feeling that they don’t have control over their lives, seeing conspiracies everywhere…

    The model you’re describing was proposed more than one century ago (behaviorism), but modern psychology had discovered that many of their theories apply only with animals (and not all of them).

    I recommend you the book “Drive”. It will give you a quick idea if you really want to learn about this.

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