Freeing the Human Spirit at Work

The experience of the post­-bureaucratic rebels testifies to a single luminous truth: an organization has little to fear from the future, or its competitors, when it’s brimming with self­ managing “micropreneurs.”

Freeing the Human Spirit at Work

How would you feel at work if . . .

  • You had the right to design your own job?
  • Your team was free to set its own goals and define its own methods?
  • You were encouraged to grow your skills and take on new challenges?
  • Your workmates felt more like family than colleagues?
  • You never felt encumbered by pointless rules and red tape?
  • You felt trusted in every situation to use your best judgment?
  • You were accountable to your colleagues rather than a boss?
  • You didn’t have to waste time sucking up or playing political games?
  • You had the chance to help shape the strategy and direction of your organization?
  • Your influence and compensation depended on your abilities and not your rank?
  • You were never given reason to feel inferior to the higher-ups?

How amazing would it be if all these things were true where you work? Amazing enough, I reckon, that work would hardly feel like work. Unfortunately, this is not the reality for most employees. The typical medium-or large-scale organization infantilizes employees, enforces dull conformity, and discourages entrepreneurship; it wedges people into narrow roles, stymies personal growth, and treats human beings as mere resources.

In consequence, our organizations are often less resilient, creative, and energetic than the people inside them. The culprit is bureaucracy—with its authoritarian power structures, suffocating rules, and toxic politicking.

Some might believe bureaucracy is on the wane, that it’s headed for the same fate as landline telephones, gas-powered cars, and single-use plastics. The word “bureaucracy,” like “horsepower,” seems to be the relic of a bygone age—and in many ways it is, but sadly, bureaucracy is still very much with us. After all, most of our organizations still fit this bureaucratic template:

And in fact, there's plenty of evidence that bureaucracy is in fact growing. The number of managers and administrators is expanding faster than employment overall, top-down rules and procedures are proliferating, and the scope for individual autonomy is shrinking. These facts are correlated, I believe, with the worrying slowdown in global productivity growth, a phenomenon that bodes ill for living standards and economic opportunity.

Thankfully, bureaucracy isn’t the only way to organize human activity at scale. Around the world, a small but growing band of post--bureaucratic pioneers are proving it’s possible to capture the benefits of bureaucracy—control, consistency, and coordination—while avoiding the penalties—inflexibility, mediocrity and apathy:

When compared to their conventionally managed peers, the vanguard—many of which we feature in Humanocracy—are more proactive, inventive and profitable.

These companies were built, or in some cases rebuilt, with one goal in mind—to maximize human contribution. This aspiration stands in stark contrast to the bureaucratic obsession with maximizing control. Both goals are important, but in most organizations, the effort spent on ensuring conformance is a vast multiple of the energy devoted to enlarging the capacity for human impact. This gross imbalance is dangerous for organizations, a drag on the economy, and ethically troubling.

Defenders of the status quo will tell you that bureaucracy is the inevi­table correlate of complexity, but our evidence suggests other wise. The vanguard companies prove that it’s possible to build organizations that are big and fast, disciplined and empowering, efficient and entrepre­neurial, bold and prudent.

If you doubt this, here’s an a short example of what’s possible when an organization commits itself to “Humanity above bu­reaucracy.” That’s the motto of Buurtzorg, a leading provider of home health services in the Netherlands. The company’s workforce of eleven thousand nurses and four thousand domestic helpers is organized into more than twelve hundred self­ managing teams. Each nursing team comprises twelve caregivers who have responsibility for a particular geo­graphic area, typically encompassing around ten thousand Dutch resi­dents. These compact operating units are responsible for finding clients, renting office space, recruiting new team members, managing bud gets, scheduling staff, meeting ambitious targets, and constantly improving the quality and efficiency of the care they provide.

In most organizations, these duties would fall to area or regional man­agers but at Buurtzorg they’re divvied up among local team members. Every team has a “housekeeper and treasurer,” a “performance monitor,” a “planner,” a “developer,” and a “mentor.” These are part­ time roles filled by nurses who spend most of each day working with patients.

To support its hyper-empowered workforce, Buurtzorg trains every employee in group decision making, active listening, conflict resolution and peer­ to­ peer coaching. Teams are tied together by a social platform, “Welink,” where nurses post questions and tips. Rather than dictate home care protocols top­ down, Buurtzorg encourages teams to optimize their operating practices by tapping the collective wisdom of the network and innovating locally when they see opportunities to advance the state of the art. Detailed performance metrics on every team are visible across Buurtzorg. This transparency creates a powerf ul incentive for peer­ to­ peer learning and continuous improvement.

Buurtzorg’s administrative personnel include fifty-­two regional and head office coaches, fifty back office staff (mostly in IT), and two se­nior directors, including Jos de Blok, Buurtzorg’s founder. That’s lean: a 15,000 person organization with two line managers and a staff group of just over one hundred individuals.

Buurtzorg sets benchmarks in virtually every area of performance:

The company’s substantial lead over its competitors isn’t the result of a brilliant top­ down strategy, slavishly applied operat­ing rules, or data­ munching algorithms, but rather of an organizational model that empowers and equips every employee to be an inspired prob­lem solver and a business­ savvy decision maker.

Buurtzorg and other vanguard organizations were built on the belief that when “ordinary” employees are given the chance to learn, grow, and contribute, they’ll achieve extraordinary results. Over time, this conviction produces a workforce that’s deeply knowledgeable, endlessly inventive, and ar­dently customer focused. The experience of the post­-bureaucratic rebels testifies to a single luminous truth: an organization has little to fear from the future, or its competitors, when it’s brimming with self­ managing “micropreneurs.”

The question is: what will you do to bring your organization closer to this reality?

This article was adapted from Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them, available now. To learn more, visit