Do You Feel Free at Work?

Do You Feel Free at Work?

As organizations consider their next steps on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), professor and DEI expert Laura Morgan Roberts advocates for adopting four key freedoms in your company. This article outlines each freedom, suggests questions you can ask yourself and your team to gauge your progress on each, and highlights ways your fellow HBR readers are (and aren’t) experiencing each freedom on a day-to-day basis.

What does the next era of diversity, equity, and inclusion look like? And what behaviors will drive it?

Laura Morgan Roberts, a Frank M. Sands Sr. Associate Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, argues that organizations should focus on how all employees experience four freedoms at work: the freedom to be, the freedom to become, the freedom to fade, and the freedom to fail. Her work explores how employees from historically marginalized groups are often given less access to these freedoms, and offers strategies for ensuring all workers are liberated on the job.

We wanted to understand how our readers live the four freedoms, so we took to HBR’s social media channels to learn about your experiences. Below are eight questions we asked, two for each freedom. We hope you, too, will ask these questions of yourself and your teammates to start conversations about feeling free in the workplace — and how we can achieve that for everyone.

The Freedom to Be

We should all feel comfortable being our authentic selves at work. But not everyone does, and managers must work harder to fix that. Here are two questions that can help:

  • Can you think of an example where you hid an aspect of your physical appearance or personality at work?
  • If you manage a team, how do you create conditions that allow all of your employees to feel safe being authentic at work?

Several readers told us that they often avoid speaking up or airing disagreements because they don’t want to threaten the authority of others, or they believe their organizations are not open to different points of view. Some also fear colleagues won’t accept core parts of their identities — or they have been silenced after expressing them.

“There were times when I didn’t wear my Jewish star to work because it didn’t feel safe to talk about being Jewish; didn’t have any pictures of my kid in my office, because it didn’t feel safe to be a working mother; and adjusted my personality to be either more feminine or more masculine,” said Shanna, a founder of a philanthropic consulting organization based in Philadelphia.

“For the past four years, I have hidden my struggle with depression,” said Susan, a system coordinator for a government organization in New Jersey. “The few times it has come to the surface, it was quickly squashed by leadership as not appropriate for the office. In 32 years of working, this has been the hardest thing I have had to do.”

To create the conditions for authenticity, managers told us, they lead by example, making a point to show up authentically themselves. Others seek out perspectives from team members who don’t readily offer theirs.

“I’m open about my own beliefs, values, and experiences, even if they are different from those of the majority,” said Nicolle, a process automation developer in São Paulo, Brazil. “I explicitly recognize and cherish the aspects that make each person unique, including our different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.”

“Always ask less senior team members to share their ideas and points of view,” advised a reader working in the automotive industry in Italy.

The Freedom to Become

Workers want opportunities to improve themselves and their situations. To better gauge whether you and your team are on this path, you can ask:

  • Do you feel that your organization is helping you reach your full potential? Which activities have helped — and where is development and feedback lacking?
  • As a manager, what do you do to develop all your employees to help them live into their potential?

Few readers answered yes to the first question. One became an entrepreneur in part because of a dearth of opportunities to grow at their former company. Although a handful of readers said their organizations do offer some development and support, many said they’ve taken their career growth into their own hands.

“My organization is reactive rather than proactive — that’s why it doesn’t help me reach my full potential,” said Syed, a banking branch manager in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Managers told us they aim to help their employees consider where they want to go in their careers and provide regular coaching in doing so.

“I try to combine challenges and disorienting dilemmas with encouragement to pursue amazing things,” explained Ken, a chief information and innovation officer in Greensboro, North Carolina, of his work with one direct report. “Two years ago, I think they might have been satisfied with the status quo. Now, they are hungry for new adventures!”

The Freedom to Fade

Everyone needs the chance to take a break from time to time. These questions are designed to help you better understand who can sometimes sidestep the pressure to perform:

  • What’s one unique or especially helpful flexibility policy offered by your organization, and why is it meaningful to you as a worker? Conversely, if there’s an area where your organization fails to offer flexibility in a way that you need it, can you share an example?
  • If you manage a team, how do you ensure all your employees have the ability to rest and recharge?

The HBR audience called out the ability to work from home, maintain a hybrid schedule, and set their own hours as especially helpful.

One IT manager in Raleigh, North Carolina, said that they particularly value the ability to observe religious holidays. Norm, a former director of sales in Chicago, pointed to his former employer’s policy of letting people take personal time off even if they’ve run out of accrued paid time off. Another reader applauded “AAW: anywhere, anytime work” as a treasured benefit.

Managers told us they ensure that time off is truly that. Ankur, an auto executive in New Delhi, said, “I will not give work on weekends.”

Readers also noted the importance of workload management. One consulting director makes a point to set “achievable targets,” give “rest time before assigning new projects,” and monitor workers’ weekly hours as a way to reduce burnout.

The Freedom to Fail

For people to learn and grow, they need to be able to take risks, fail, and capture lessons from those experiences without worrying that they’ll be punished or fired. Consider these questions:

  • Do you feel comfortable making mistakes at work? Why or why not?
  • If you’re a manager, what are some ways you work to normalize failure on your team?

Our respondents were mixed in their answers. One said that as a “foreigner” working in advertising in Europe, they felt like they were “walking on eggshells every single day.” Siddharth, an operations manager in Fredericksburg, Virginia, said, “I am comfortable letting my staff make mistakes, but when it comes to myself, I am not.”

Managers described trying to help employees. Susan from New Jersey said that while “the senior leadership team does not foster any type of ‘failing forward’ thinking,” she sees it as her responsibility “to buffer that sentiment from my staff as much as possible.”

Michael, an HR manager in Colorado, said he tries to do the same for his team: “Talk about the benefit, learning, and opportunity in each failure first, then talk about the impacts the failure had. Was it as bad as anticipated, or worse due to aggravating factors?”

Aanchal, an assistant professor in Lucknow, India, emphasizes the big picture: “I discuss the reasons behind uncomfortable circumstances with the team and try to be generous with them.”

. . .

To truly foster and benefit from diversity and inclusion, organizations and individuals must prioritize the four freedoms. Regularly check in with yourself and your team to evaluate where you stand. Remember that a liberated workforce is one in which everyone can be their best and thrive.


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