Spreading freedom at work, at WorldBlu LIVE 2013

worldbluLIVEposterI’m attending my first WorldBlu LIVE in Denver this week and loving it. If I had to describe this annual event where people come together to talk about and celebrate democratic workplaces and the mission to foster more of them, I would say it reminds me of some of my favorite conversations from another breakout event — SXSW Interactive, in Austin, Texas. At SXSWi, the focus runs the gamut from new programming languages, to cool new startups, to philosophy, to politics. But there are always some people who want to talk about the problem of working in command-and-control environments with their inherent lack of freedom and many disenfranchised individuals, about slowing down and respecting quality, about simplifying.  WorldBlu LIVE focuses in on that stuff. And the stories shared by individuals and companies who have transformed their workplaces or who have been about flat, democratic, open environments from the start, are deeply inspiring.

Kent Thiry, Mayor (CEO) of dialysis giant, DaVita, shared openly about the company’s resurrection-like experience after being on the verge of bankruptcy in 1999. That’s when Thiry took the CEO job at what was then Total Renal Care (TRC), had the employees pick a new company name (DaVita, which is Italian for “giving life”) and select the companies core values. The organization was flattened, became much more open, grew to what is now more than 53,000, and is the leader in its field. So much for the argument that openness and democratic structure are uncompetitive utopian ideals.

I spoke to Simon Anderson, CEO of cloud service and hosting company, Dreamhost. He spoke about the anxious thrill of interviewing for the job and ultimately being chosen by all of the employees of Dreamhost. Anderson says there’s an understanding and a buy-in that comes with knowing you have your job because the entire company made the decision. And you also know who didn’t vote for you and you have the opportunity to gain their trust as well.

WorldBlu founder Traci Fenton says when she talks about freedom in the workplace, she is not implying anarchy, but an atmosphere that supports realization and expression of each individual’s true worth. Fenton says such an atmosphere creates the optimal conditions for performance and smarter decisions. In that place, there’s no need to layer on unnecessary bureaucracy and management. But something pushes back against this instinctive wisdom about how to create successful organizations that enrich both their workers and their customers.

“It’s fear, and its at the root of every problem,” says Fenton. She speaks about the many masks of fear, such as hierarchy, silence, cynicism, turf wars, excessive control, etc.  Fenton cites research showing that when we operate in a state of fear, the peripheries of our brains shut down and we only use about 20% of our mental capacity. In the US, one out of four Americans say they work in a dictatorship. In the U.S. a 73% disengagement in the workplace costs the economy billions annually. And the worldwide number of those who feel disengaged at work is even higher at 81%. Fenton sees an enormous waste of human productivity, happiness, and potential. She says, “a fear-based mentality leads to fear-based design, fear-based leadership, and a fear-based culture.  The alternative is a freedom-centered mindset where systems give power to the people and release potential.”

Check out WorldBlu’s 10 Principles of Organizational Democracy, and see how your company measures up. And while you’re at it, ask yourself what Traci and her WorldBlu team call “the power question.” Pick a decision that you face, and ask yourself:

What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?

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