If you put fences around people you get sheep

| Posted in Leadership | | 1,545 views


I have recently stumbled upon this quote and I did like it so much, I tweeted it and found that many people have retweeted it in a short time, it is a quote of William L. McKnight (1887 – 1978), a former CEO of 3M company, who saved 3M from bankruptcy and made it a multinational and most importantly innovative company!

No wonder that 3M has always been associated with innovation, McKnight had a big role to play with that, McKnight is one of the few CEOs I have seen who really believed in the power of people and realized that the success can only be achieved through people, he believed in delegation and giving people the freedom of thinking and potentially choice. McKnight laid the foundation, and it is a strong one, for 3M corporate culture.

If you look at most of today’s companies you will find many fences around that can turn people into sheep, companies pay more attention to symbolic aspects and policies that most of the times are based on nothing, rather than providing genuine care to people and encouraging them to be innovative, if people have fences around them, the opportunity of innovation is minimal, McKnight believed in two core principles, delegation of responsibility and ownership of initiatives, despite working in the twenty first century we still miss these two core values in most of companies, if you look at our business life you will find many fences, some examples are:

  • Forcing people to focus on their tasks only rather than encouraging them to find solutions to problems or to continuously try to improve company’s processes
  • Monitoring sign in and sign out times rather than productivity and deliveries
  • Micromanagement is a fence that kills creativity
  • Fake encouragement:if a company asks people to be innovative and provide good solutions for core business problems without giving feedback or trying to implement those solutions, this will definitely demoralize people and make them think twice before giving recommendations and solutions
  • Workplace Video Surveillance: some companies are watching their employees by fixing cameras around, I cannot think of how people can work while feeling watched all the times!
  • Dress code, some people really do not feel comfortable in jacket and tie

If I keep thinking I’d come up with tens of fences both physical and virtual and I personally believe that the virtual ones are more painful.

I also have something to add to McKnight’s quote; fences may not get you sheep only it also can create wolves, while the sheep will always be scared of job loss or giving an idea that may sound stupid or get rejected, wolves will challenge the corporation they work for and will always try to cut the fences around them, the common trait between the sheep and wolves is that both will not stay for too long in the company and they will always try to escape the fences using one way or another, this definitely will result in a high turnover and can jeopardize the business continuity of the company.

Do you have something to say? Isn’t it ironic that McKnight was applying these principles over a century ago while most of 21st companies are far away from it? What fences you can think of that can turn people into sheep and/or wolves? I’d love to hear from you!

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Comments (14)

What about stopping access to social networks by using strong firewalls. I think thats one of the common fences in offices.

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After I just hit the publish button, the social networks ban has come to my mind, I thought of editing the post but then decided to keep it as is and expected someone to pose this topic!

I am not totally with allowing all the social networks at work, the social networks are time wasters for many people, a lot of people fail to manage their priorities and their schedules in the first place, and so banning is the first option that companies use, if the company was delivery based there wouldn’t be a problem.

Again, it is all about culture and what the employer thinks of the employees!

BTW, If you want to cut the fences you simply can use a web proxy and so you will turn to be a wolf rather than a sheep 🙂

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While it is hard to put complete trust in your staff on the social networking issue, I have a harder time believing that workplace trust is spent altogether.

If the culture in the workplace is such that you can’t put faith in your employees to know when it is worktime and when it is playtime, why wouldn’t that likewise signal that senior level executives cannot truly trust them with tasks and creative flow, either? Moreover, why wouldn’t this also mean that the projects/tasks are already doomed in such an atmosphere in the first place? I recognise that this will seem to be a straw-man argument for social websites, but I also believe in trust in workplace governance.

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I agree completely! All too often we put up fences and do not realize we are doing so and the negative impact these fences can have. As you have stated, the impacts are three fold; the creation of sheep, wolves and high turnover none of which are productivity enhancers.

If we focus on removing the fences, the productivity will naturally rise and our projects have a better chance of success as a result. The worst case if we have happier employees.

Thanks for posting.

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Mark, the problem is that companies still use old style management, they keep adding more fences and they mistakenly think that it would make people work harder/better, it’s pathetic that we still have this kind of thinking, like mentioned before this kind of practices are some sort of masked labour, the economy will be much better if companies put more emphasis on people and have flexible policies and procedures.


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Your mention of the Dress Code issue brought back an odd but translatable memory.
When I was in ninth-grade, I played basketball for a coach that made the noticeable decision to wear a polo shirt and shorts during games. Before, he had been like the rest of the profession: buttoned-down. I talked with my Dad about it once during the year. He was in definite support. “Why not be comfortable?”
It’s nice to see people thinking outside of the box in a much more important endeavor on Dress Code issues.

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Great post, and I agree with all points here. Funny about the dress code. Someone I used to work for promoted (and enforced) a dress code because it said it would help us act more professionally. Ironically, this same guy was accused of sexual harassment by many female coworkers.

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Very Insightful post!!!

Corporates waste most of their time on fencing their employees in turn making employees into bonded labor than a potential contributor to the company.

I might be a bit blunt but I feel most of these corporate guys do bonded labour in a more socially accepted way.

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Aditya, your feeling is so real, sometimes labour are even better, because everything is clear and confrontations are always direct and addressing people directly, on the other hand, in corporates you have under-table handshakes and pinching, you suffer from politics and hidden agendas …

Come on, Ugliest things are often done in the prettiest ways..

Thank you!

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Great post…yes very true, most managers create fences that turn their employees into sheep.

The point of social networks is critical and two fold. From one side, yes it can be a waste of time for people who can’t manage their time but it can also be a tool for doing business, increasing revenue and cutting costs.

I hate it when managers want to check every email you send and approve every move you do…this really kills the sense of ownership and responsibility.

Too many rules around the work place is a also a killer… when to come, how to dress, how to use the phone, when to eat, how to use the photocopier,…..too many restrictions and how tos suffocates people and kills their initiative

I know a GM who tells every employee what exactly to say to a customer when he calls him over the phone and he goes on to dictate on him the whole conversation. to the extent that he says: if he tells you so and so, you should say so and so and if he says this you say that…..what do you say about that?

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Doha, like you said social networks offer great knowledge, it depends on how the one wants to use it, what you’ve mentioned about those managers is a model of micromanagement, and indeed you cannot call these people managers, because in fact they are not, a manager whose that attitude is a babysitter not a manager..

Unfortunately, most of companies care more about cosmetic stuff rather than real work..

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Unfortunately Innovation is not a business of all employees; only few can innovate. Especially if you are referring to software and outsourcing in this region of the world, where the rich world only outsources mostly repetitive and formal work.

Fences – or let’s call them rules – are useful, maybe not for all of your employees, but in general, they will get you more (formal) output. Probably you will see that when you notice how you can easily lose money because most people (that you hire) are lazy.

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Well, I could say that when your organization is considerably small or in the early stage, you can actively choose the potential contributors from the mass .. no fencing .. no wolf.. no sheep then.

Then the question comes how could it be possible when your Organization has gone beyond the bounds? Then some may say that you need to have fences around.. This argument will go on..

But I view the question in a different way. The question here should NOT be why fencing, instead ‘how you are fencing’.

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@Kripssmart: I totally agree with you… When the organization becomes big you have to have rules and regulations but not to the extent that they become fences and hinder innovation.

The best thing is to balance between having standards, rules and regulations that govern the business and make sure that no violations or negligence are committed and at the same time avoid making them too much or too meticulous that they become chains around your employees.

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