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The Boiled Leader – Digital Freedom at Work

by Carol Rozwell  |  September 11, 2013  |  3 Comments

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.

And I’m not alone in my belief. MIX (Management Innovation eXchange) is hosting a challenge that explores autonomy at work. The discussion is underway. If you have some ideas of how to bring this future to fruition, participate in the Digital Freedom Challenge. This is an important change and we all need to be prepared.

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Category: change-management  collaboration  social-networks  

Tags: leadership  organizational-change  social-networking  socially-centered-leadership  

Carol Rozwell
VP Distinguished Analyst
11 years at Gartner
21 years IT industry

Carol Rozwell is a vice president and distinguished analyst on Gartner's Digital Workplace team. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on The Boiled Leader – Digital Freedom at Work

  1. Paul says:

    I strongly believe in collaboration at work as ideas and engagement comes to life. If we can give our employees the moral responsibility for their action we can bring out the best of their talent.

  2. See says:

    Thanks for the insightful article! I agree that enterprise social networking tools will offer the ability to see and to analyze which individual contributors are most focused on their success alone, versus those ICs who elevate their entire team.

    Another at-risk demographic is managers. Toxic managers are endemic, and yet little is done within most organizations to see that managers are doing a good job. It is too difficult in a world of private email and closed-door meetings to understand how certain managers decimate the productivity of their direct reports through ineffective communication and stunted leadership. Let the change begin.

  3. Chris Leach says:

    Hi Carol,
    We connected via one of your other blogs, where I asked permission to use/refer to your article. Just to close the loop on that, here is where I used it:

    Best regards,

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