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Is There a Place for Independent Spirit in Corporate America?

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Entrepreneurs are typically regarded as independent spirits or mavericks in their industries - charging full-bore toward risks, exploring, testing, trying and inventing new ways of operating, thinking or being. Corporate employees, on the other hand, are often stereotyped as risk-averse bureaucratic cogs who participate in "mass think" and lemming behaviors.

Does this stereotype have to be the case? Not necessarily. Can Corporate America (and any other organization) benefit from -- and truly accept -- an independent spirit? We believe so.

The word 'entrepreneur' is from the Old French, and means "to undertake"; it is a concept or action -- not a title. The word also shares Latin roots with "enterprise." What organization couldn't benefit from this kind of vigor? An infusion of fresh ideas, healthy debate, and engaged employees are the first signs that an independent spirit is alive and well in a company. But while this sounds rational, not all leaders, employees, or company cultures welcome -- at least in action -- these demonstrations of independence.

What do we mean by 'independent spirit?'
Whether independent spirit is truly welcomed in an organization relies heavily on exactly how the people of that organization define 'independence.' Behavior and attitudes that would rightly be considered 'independent' in an 85,000-person mega-corporation, based on that company's cultural norms and mores, might have a serial-entrepreneur rolling on the floor in laughter (or weeping from boredom). If hired by a large corporation, that same entrepreneur might seem over-the-top -- like an unruly wavemaker who disrupts the corporate flow -- to his corporate colleagues, and be unceremoniously spewed out of the corporate culture as if he were an unfriendly virus.

So the first thing leaders must do is define what constitutes the "entrepreneurial", or what makes for an acceptable level of independence -- as it relates to their organizational culture -- before they roll out the recruitment banners in search of "entrepreneurial personalities." Likewise, a job-hunter must ensure clarity on such definitions before assuming his definition of "entrepreneurial" or "self-starter who takes initiative" is the same as it is in the organization he might join.So let's create a baseline definition of 'independent spirit' for the purposes of this article, that way, persons from organizations along any part of the spectrum might find some value here. At a minimum, we'll assume that an independent spirit means having a willingness to speak out about concerns, ask questions, probe into (or challenge) the reasons behind unquestioned ways of doing things, and suggest alternative approaches.

The Merits of Independence
Many business leaders talk about wanting employees who are committed to the company vision and contributing their best selves and gifts to the organization. Will squelching someone's independent spirit, simply because it's more comfortable for some people in the short-term, allow for him or her to become this hoped-for employee? No. What you'll likely get are mediocre results from many employees, talented employees who "grow down" to become mediocre employees, a revolving door of talented people who don't want to lobotomize their curiosity or questioning mind, and/or people working against their grain, struggling to fit into a specific corporate-culture mold -- a sure recipe for making unproductive behavior and dysfunction the organizational norm.

Advocating for a healthy level of independent spirit by no means suggests that policies, clear roles and direction, and mutual understanding are unnecessary -- rather that some degree of independent spirit is one of the tenets of good communication and healthy communities.

Yet even if a leader fully supports and encourages employees to have an independent spirit, the company culture might not. So what can you do, regardless of organizational culture norms, to foster a healthy level of independence in your group while ensuring common vision and synchronized efforts?

Tips to Take for Action
Reflect, answer and take action from these questions and tips designed to spark your thinking about how to amplify the independent spirit in your organization.

Ask Yourself: What constitutes an independent spirit in our organization, why is it important to our organization, and how does it relate to our vision?
Tip: Some organizations, like the United States military, wouldn't benefit from a bunch of mavericks charging around on their own independent missions. And yet there is a degree of independent spirit fostered in the military services that helps some groups operate at peak performance versus mediocrity, and that allows mission-aligned decision-making and action in very tenuous situations.

Before anything else, make sure that your definition of the independent spirit is tailored to your organizational vision and culture, and that you're clear about the potential benefits of fostering that degree of independent-thinking. Map out these benefits, and how you'll manifest them. A crystal-clear vision; rock-solid commitment to this vision; and a culturally appropriate, well-thought-out communication plan are three cornerstones to successfully accepting and nurturing an appropriately independent spirit in your company.

Ask Yourself: Where is faulty rhetoric rearing it ugly head?
Tip: Actions speak louder than words. If leadership or management team members are professing the benefits of an independent spirit, yet hoarding information or not considering employees' input, for example, any efforts to let one's independent thinking shine will fizzle. The same is true if initiative is smothered in a company that calls itself "entrepreneurial." Morale will drop, and employees might scratch this up as another "business fad of the month" -- sending trust and commitment down the drain in favor of cynicism and mediocrity.

Identify instances where departmental and organizational rhetoric are out of sync with reality. Solicit input and ideas on how and why an independent spirit may or may not benefit the company. The perspectives and information that you receive will help shape effective communication, which informs effective behavior, and might help shed light on other cultural assets and issues.

Ask Yourself: Who or what is an example of an "appropriately independent" spirit, and what does this tell you about your organization?
Tip: People learn more easily from stories, and stories can help shape the desired culture. What person or action within the company represents the ideal independent spirit for your company, and why? How does this one story exemplify the organizational vision? What other stories exist?

Be certain that your definition of an independent spirit is clear, giving employees the flexibility and the guidelines needed to be more appropriately independent. Remember, an independent spirit is found in day-to-day activities as well as in maverick accomplishments and ground-breaking inventions. Use these stories to build excitement about and give recognition for the spirit you want to replicate throughout the organization.

Ask Yourself: How can we diffuse the need for power and encourage sharing?
Tip: An independent spirit can be seen as a threat, especially in organizations that rely heavily on hierarchical relationships and tried-and-true routines. Meaningful communication can help to reduce this fear and ultimately redirect the energy to more productive efforts by building understanding of how individuals and the organization benefit from this spirit. In short, an organization needs an assortment of worldviews, personalities and talents in order to create the whole "pie" of talent needed to propel the organization forward.

For example, what makes an effective accountant and what makes a successful sales person usually make for distinctly contrasting personalities, and yet both are needed by the organization. Independent spirit might be a situational approach used by anyone in the organization, or it might apply to an individual or a department's overall personality. Be certain to address this issue if you want to open the doors to independent thought and actions.

Ask Yourself: What are the barriers to an independent spirit within my organization? What are the catalysts?
Tip: Find out what ignites or maintains an independent spirit in your organization, and look to other companies for ideas. On the flip side, what factors -- such as policies, leadership response, management roles, red tape, or personality issues -- are hindering this spirit?

Ask Yourself: What are three approaches or tools that I can practice this week to reveal my appropriately independent spirit and foster it in others?
Tip: As with any transition or growth period, it's best to start with self. Identify and commit to at least three tools that you'll use to become more of an independent spirit to the benefit of yourself and your business. Examples might include:

  • I will ask questions when I have them or express concerns when they arise in my mind.
  • I will question the status quo so we can be sure it's the best approach for the situation.
  • I will identify the internal barriers that I've created that squelch my independent spirit, and identify how "my being small" does not serve myself or my organization.

Jamie Walters is the founder and Chief Vision & Strategy Officer at Ivy Sea, Inc. in San Francisco, CA.

Remember, this information is food-for-thought, not customized counsel. The most effective interpersonal and organizational leadership or communication program is one that's been tailored to meet the unique needs of you and your group. If you have questions, connect with a qualified adviser or e-mail us for suggestions.

Copyright © 1997-2001 IvySea Online Communication, San Francisco. All rights reserved. Limited duplication or distribution allowed with prior permission from and credit to IvySea Online Communication.

Last updated: Jul 5, 2001




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