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The Boiled Leader – Digital Freedom at Work

by Carol Rozwell on September 13, 2013


carol-rozwell's picture

The Boiled Leader – Digital Freedom at Work

Many of us who took natural science courses during our undergraduate work were exposed to the story of the boiled frog experiment. The experiment showed that a frog sitting in a beaker of water would not attempt to escape if the water was heated gradually enough. The lesson we are supposed to learn from that story is that is we do not pay attention to the gradual changes in our milieu, we may suffer dire consequences.

For this reason, I find it useful to look back periodically and take notice of the changes that have occurred. By comparing “then” to “now” using specific examples, we can assess whether our response to change is keeping pace.

One area that concerns me is the progression of leadership approaches for a social business era. My Gartner colleague Deb Logan and I identified the concept of the socially centered leader in last year’s maverick project (Gartner clients can read the research). This year, we’ve been exploring how technology enables a deeper level of engagement for those leaders who espouse the characteristics of socially centered leadership. When we speak of the socially centered leader, we don’t just mean the manager whose position is assured on the organization chart. We also include anyone who is in any ad hoc leadership role. When you think about how much project-oriented work we all participate in on a regular basis, it’s easy to see that there may be as many as two to four times the number of informal leaders as formally appointed managers.

An interesting potential future for leadership emerged from the research. As organizations become more democratic, more and more employees will have the opportunity to be involved in the decision making processes of their companies or agencies. These will be important decisions – both strategic and tactical since presumably we’ve automated as many of the operational decisions as possible – not the inconsequential ones without any significant financial impact. Socially centered leaders exhibit a fact-based decision style that includes input from multiple sources. That much is a given. But what other changes might we expect as the workplace becomes more social and employees crave a level of freedom at work that they already have in their personal lives? Organizations fuss over “bring your own device (BYOD)” to work issues, what about “bring your own freedoms (BYOF)” to work?

Many of us have a large degree of freedom already regarding who we work with. As a Gartner analyst, I can chose to work with any colleague, anywhere in the world if it makes sense and will produce good research deliverables for our clients. We are not alone in this approach. I’ve spoken with many project managers who tell me they allow lots of flexibility for project members when choosing teammates. Pioneering organizations such as W.L. Gore, Menlo, IDEO and Morning Star have turned traditional practices on their heads.

The upshot is that we will increasingly get to work with the people we want to work with and avoid the ones we don’t. And we all know some of those people, don’t we? There are multiple ways these people-I-don’t-want-to-work-with folks irritate us. They hog the glory, don’t do their fair share, whine incessantly, etc. Whatever special type of annoyance they favor, we do our best to avoid working with them. They just don’t play well with others. They can’t collaborate. Everyone in the peer group knows who they are, yet management takes no action.

This is about to change.

I’ve been watching the slow but inexorable progression of social workplace tools that have to potential to expose workers who aren’t effective collaborators. They identify contributors and acknowledge people committed to the success of the team as a whole. I expect that as social businesses mature, the requirement to uncover and re-educate non-collaborators will increase. Most often, we think of the need to increase collaboration within and among peer groups. I predict this issue will become as important for managers and leaders as it is for individuals. We need to pay attention to this shift or become like the boiled frog.

This is why the MIX is hosting the Digital Freedom Challenge. They're looking for the most progressive case studies and the boldest ideas on how to expand individual autonomy at work. What are you doing to avoid the boiled frog syndrome? Share your stories and ideas here.

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marcelo-patino's picture

Congratulations Carol.

My contribution :

Luckily, I know now why I ´ve been seeing so many boiled frogs around. And I would say that the death toll rate will increase.
We CEOS, General Managers, etc. ( group to which I belong) are grabbing to the telephone poles in the middle of the flood. We think it´s just another flood. That it will pass....
Not this one. And the outcome will be the same as usual: we adapt by necessity, not conciously.
In the meanwhile, we look for excuses and scapegoats (business as usual).
My question: can old fashioned -in their midfifties-still white collar executives really understand what ´s happening & adapt?
I´ m too cold and wet to answer....

carol-rozwell's picture

Interesting perspective, Marcelo.

Remaking an organization into a social business (or a digital business, whichever terminology you prefer) is not for the faint of heart. Unfortunately, in my many years of counselling clients about social business, I haven’t talked with any organization that has changed metrics, leadership models or taught people new skills. I agree with your assessment that many management teams are just waiting for this whole "social thing" to pass by. However, those leaders - regardless of their age or collar color - who espouse a new way of leading and working will help their organizations realize a level of improved performance that will amaze them!

marcelo-patino's picture

Hi Carol. Many thanks for your comment & agree 100% with it.

I have been trying for many months now to find / elaborate some tips for the "old school management" to at least get into the bus before it´s too late.
Up till now, I only have four :
a) embrace new comunication technologies ; surprisingly there´s a lot of people out there that still think the e-mail is "the thing" and there´s nothing beyond that. They do not even text.
b) Lose (or invest) a lot of time chating with those below 30 y.o. in your organization. You may learn about a lot of behavoural traits that are really new ; these new bahavours may direct o take you to the new version of what we called the "contact web" inside your organization.
c) Do not pretend to be what you cannot be : those below 30 y.o, see everyone over 50, as "old". Period. Simply try to be a reference for them ; they are the ones that are pushing the new "participative thing". Being in their contact list is already a victory.
d) Do not try to understand all that´s happening at once. May be it´s not necessary. Focus on the big picture. This, we can do better than the new generations and is always valuable.

carol-rozwell's picture

Marvelous list, Marcelo!

edna-pasher's picture

It is never too late to unlearn! it is possible to jump out of the boiling water - we just need to realize they are getting warmer. In order to do so we have to let go of the illusions of command and control and deeply believe that jumping out of the water is less risky then staying in. We often need a hand to help us jump out...

carol-rozwell's picture


Agree that we can all change, with the right motivation. What makes it difficult is that people continue with behaviors - even bad behaviors - that have worked for them in the past. In my experience, it takes some kind of a jolt to make us notice what might be a better way to behave.

chris-leach's picture

I especially like your second last paragraph where you write "...uncover and re-educate non-collaborators ...". This is a great message for people who I mentor and teach how to mentor - aka formal and informal leaders! Older mentors have a wonderful opportunity to learn from their younger, informal leaders/mentees. I'd like to share parts of your article, with your permission.

carol-rozwell's picture

Chris - I'm glad the post resonated with you. We need to build a new kind of workplace that encourages collaboration and engagement. I would be honored if you share any part of my blog that furthers that end.

edna-pasher's picture

I love it! It is a big challenge ! It is soooooo difficult to help managers jump out of the water, get rid of obsolete definitions of management, unlearn what does no longer work and experiment with new ideas of how to lead people effectively. People are afraid to let go of the misleading source of confidence - using formal authority to get a job done.

carol-rozwell's picture

Edna - so pleased these new "management" ideas are so appealing to you. It's going to take courageous leaders to shift 150 years of thinking and devote their energies to creating workspaces where employees can really use their skills to innovate, rather than being told what to do. Thanks for your support and involvement.