Loose Environments

A stuffy, restrictive environment can really reduce the creative atmosphere in your workplace. Innovation does not always conform to broad, universal policies. Forcing your employees to fit into a box constructed of strict rules and hierarchies can limit their effectiveness, which pretty much negates the whole reason for hiring them in the first place. A looser, freer environment that allows your employees to explore their own working style and challenge conventional thinking, with a free flow of communication between talented people, can lead to improved collaboration and innovation in your workplace.

You will find, though, that too loose of an environment can hurt your ability to lead. Trying to be a buddy makes it tough to be a boss. Lack of hierarchy can make it unclear who has the final say in decisions. “No rules” can mean no one really knows what they are responsible for, or what is truly off-limits. Going out for drinks with your employees makes it hard to criticize them for coming to work with a hangover.

As with most things in life, what is needed is balance. But figuring out where to draw the line is tough. The easy answer — and the unsatisfying one — is “it depends.”

The size of your firm matters. Bigger firms tend to be more hierarchical because it is harder to coordinate what a lot of people are doing than it is for a few. If you’re trying to get different groups within the company to work together you will probably need a more formal structure than if you have 15 people working in a startup.

The nature of the work is a factor as well. If you require a lot of teams you should try to break down the walls between different specialties and avoid stovepipes in your company. If it is mostly individual work, you need to focus on keeping open communication between you and each of your individual employees. Try to figure out how the communication needs to flow and then set up your structure to facilitate that.

Consider the maturity of your employees. Are they mostly fresh out of school, or have they been in the working world for a while? Those who are more experienced are more likely to understand what is appropriate and what is not, and can use their own judgment on things. Less experienced workers might need more structure so they can learn about the working world and how they fit into it.

Consider your own maturity as a leader. Are you new to this, or have you been leading for a while? Did you come from the ranks of the employees into management, or did you come into this organization from the outside? Your experience, and your existing relationships with your employees, will suggest how much leeway you can give yourself. If you think you are able to have a casual working relationship but still be tough when necessary, then go right ahead. But if you think you will have trouble crossing back and forth over that line, then just stick to a more professional relationship for now and leave the looseness and more casual relationships for when you are ready.

Early in my career I had moved into a leadership position in the training division of a large organization. One of our instructors made a huge mistake, and I had to clean up the mess, a pretty serious mess at that. As I was trying to figure out how to deal with this employee — what, exactly, should be the consequences for his careless inattention to detail? — I was stuck with one serious problem: he was my roommate. I learned from that experience that there is a time to be casual and loose and a time to be more rigid and structured, and a good leader is one who is able to tell the difference.