Most of us probably don’t remember our first coloring book but I’ll bet many of us will recall how we interacted with the black and white outlines on the printed pages when armed with a set of colorful crayons. Some of us liked to fill in the spaces by carefully staying within the boundaries suggested by the picture. Others preferred to scribble wildly on the page, creating a plethora of color. Both methods demonstrated our creative spirit.
As we grew older our perceptions of the “rules of coloring” likely changed. Many of us learned to color within the lines as a more acceptable behavior if we expected to receive praise from a parent or teacher. Some of us more easily adapted to this creative style and our coloring book creations became testaments to careful planning and diligent execution.
Workplaces are often structured places with well-defined rules and processes to guide our behavior. In essence we are encouraged to “color within the lines” if we expect to be promoted or recognized for our contributions. But is that really the best model for creating an ideal workspace? How do leaders balance their need for structure while also encouraging employees to be creative and engaged?
A recent study suggests that many people would design their ideal workplace to be free of arbitrary restrictions. Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules. Imagine an accounting firm that ignored GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) or an engineering firm that failed to following quality controls or load requirements when designing a bridge. The former business would soon be liable for fraud and the latter sued because their structure collapsed.
Some rules and organizational structure are necessary for success. But processes and best practices don’t need to be punitive or bureaucratic, especially if employees view them as legitimate. The reason many rules are resented and subsequently ignored is because they lack any moral authority. No one enjoys “coloring between the lines” out of duty or coercion. It is only when they can see a larger more compelling vision of their work that employees will embrace the need for some order amid the chaotic marketplace.
A workplace culture that encourages face-to-face communication versus a reliance on emails and texts could transform relationships and avoid many of the other rules that tend to accompany internet and social media use. When a leader demonstrates trust by eliminating paperwork for tracking expenses she is encouraging the team to hold each other accountable for not abusing this privilege. If the company structure supports a mission that is widely understood and affirmed by team members unnecessary rules and regulations won’t be required for the organization to be efficient and productive.
There will probably always be leaders and enterprises that try to force employees to stay within the lines. Sadly they will often fail to engage the very best from their workers and may not attract the brightest and best in the first place. When leaders allow people to be themselves, tell the truth, provide purpose and meaning, and connect work with something worthy, they can expect a different response from their team. Perhaps they will even learn to appreciate when you draw outside the lines.