The Semco Style 5 Principles to transform the way we work

Treating Adult as Adults

You reap what you sow

People are responsible adults at home. Why do we suddenly transform them into adolescents with no freedom when they reach the workplace? – Ricardo Semler

In a Nutshell

If you’re a manager or a C-level executive, take a minute to consider this: Who do you think works for you? An adult who is capable of sound decisions and strong actions? Or, a (wo)man-child who needs hand-holding every step of a process? If you chose the first option, you’re probably wrong. Most corporate cultures have infantilized the workplace so much that there’s hardly any room for innovative risk-taking; boarding-school like conformity to rules; and no freedom to take autonomous decisions that may sometimes end in failure.

Such dumbing down of corporate work life made absolute sense in the Industrial era, when there was negligent tolerance towards human error. When costly consultants reaffirm what you already know to be true; when every frontline conversation between staff and customer are scripted; or, when you already have a set of “best practices” put together by someone else, there’s no need for people to think, experiment or innovate. Production took place like clockwork and everyone was happy.

However, such codes, rulebooks, manuals and best practices prevent people from learning from their mistakes, growing intellectually and adapting to change fast. They make companies trust more in rules than in their people and that’s the death knell for any creativity.

People who go about their jobs mechanically cannot be expected to be engaged with it. For people to really connect with the work they do and be responsible about how they deliver on targets, the workplace needs to be like a laboratory: An unpredictable, yet safe space, where employees feel like they’re on a meaningful quest for knowledge and discovery


Treat employees like responsible adults instead of children for whom everything needs to be spelled out. Trust employees to deliver rather than supervising them in arbitrary and meaningless ways.


Most organizations suffer from the boarding-school syndrome, which makes them treat their employees like immature children. They insist on telling people when to arrive at work, where to sit, what to do, how to dress, how to behave and so on. That’s hardly the way to treat people who are discerning adults in their personal lives, where they budget their family income, nourish and nurture children, and make tough decisions when necessary. When companies treat adults like children or teenagers who cannot entirely think for themselves, then that’s exactly how they will behave.

That’s the reason why most people stop thinking for themselves, trying new things or taking chances at work. But on the flip side, if companies were to treat employees like the adults they are, offer them trust and transparency, and expect people to not just own up to mistakes but learn from them, then people will behave accordingly. They will begin trusting the company and the leadership; will start making decisions after careful deliberation; take responsibility and pride in delivering their best work; and accept the consequences when things go wrong.



Stop thinking of employees as puppets you can control: The safety that comes when you control people’s every move is but illusory. In reality, companies that are too controlling of their people tend to be extremely hierarchical, poor innovators and less agile when faced with change. On the other end, companies that realize that people are mature thinking adults who have specific competencies and unique potential, tend to adapt faster to change; be productive, high performers; and are generally successful. Such companies know that the potential of people needs space and stimulation in order to flourish. But, it can never be done in an environment that’s top-down and controlling with the management telling people what they can and cannot do. Instead, talent and potential thrives in places that allow people to make autonomous decisions, be themselves, make mistakes and learn from them.

Respect differences and learn from each other: With Millennials increasingly flooding the workforce across the world, it’s important to build a corporate culture that respects the differences among employees – whether it’s their age, their tech-savviness, or their life experiences. For, there could be real old-timers who’ve been in the company since the very beginning; there could be middle-aged employees who’ve got a few years or maybe even decades in service; and finally, there maybe the teenage interns who’ve just entered the fold. It’s important you treat all employees as adults, irrespective of their age or experience, and as people who come from diverse backgrounds and have something valuable to share with everyone. Avoid stereotyping people as that “old person who’s been in the company forever” or “that person who doesn’t know anything about technology” or “that young kid who doesn’t know anything about life” and so on.  

Use your recruitment process to filter out misfits: The recruitment process is an important link in the chain when it comes to transforming your work culture into one that treats people like adults. It’s a great way to show your commitment towards the philosophy and can positively impact employee morale, engagement and productivity over time. So, when you’re interviewing a candidate, assess not just their technical skills and suitability, but their behavioral profile on the whole. Try to gauge how the person behaves as a human being in certain situations and not just whether they’d be a good resource for the team. Of course, it might be difficult to correctly judge a person’s characteristics during the course of an interview, but it is possible to gain a glimpse into their personality. Tweak your interview process to involve more people and make it a more participatory event, with both sides having the freedom to question and seek clarification. And make collaborative decisions on whether or not the candidate will be a good fit: Whether they have the responsibility and maturity to act like an adult; to make independent decisions; to experiment and actively seek knowledge; and to convert mistakes into learning opportunities.

Balance freedoms with responsibility: When you begin treating your employees as adults, it requires a lot of trust. You need to trust that your people will know how to balance the freedom they get with the responsibilities they have; that they have the common sense to understand that it’s an exchange of professional courtesies that won’t work unless they deliver on their promises. Nevertheless, it’s a very delicate balance to achieve and it can be challenging for newcomers to understand how far they can stretch their freedom and at what point they need to rein themselves in. The management needs to come to terms with the fact that it’s natural for people to sometimes lose themselves in their newfound freedom, if they aren’t careful. And that there may be a few who abuse the company’s trust in them to behave like adults. However, more often than not, people tend to reciprocate trust with even more trust and responsibility. Multiple studies have shown that productivity and confidence rises in employees when they know their manager or supervisor trusts their capacity to deliver results. In short, treat people the same way you’d like to be treated.

Level to implement



Have a little faith in people and offer implicit trust and transparency

Avoid imposing too many guidelines, rules, best practices

Encourage people to experiment and get involved with other departments if necessary

Be open to a variety of opinions, experiences and backgrounds

Use the recruitment process to find people who will be a good fit for such a culture

Learn to balance freedoms with responsibility


Set rules in stone or detail every action to be taken in employee manuals

Forget that employees are discerning adults in their personal lives

Abuse the power and freedom that comes with trust and autonomy

Punish everyone for the deceptions of a select few


Dramatically improves employee performance and confidence

Boosts innovation, creativity and engagement

Holds people morally accountable

Improves the trust employees feel towards the company and leadership

Transforms employees into ardent advocates of the company and its offerings

Creates a positive work culture that puts people ahead of processes


There may be some uncertainty when you do away with all the rule books

Managers and leaders may feel a loss of their perceived control

Time-consuming to truly implement at all levels

Might be difficult for traditional companies and managers to accept and adopt

Some people might take advantage of the freedom and trust given to them

Case Study


Semco’s work culture is well-known for its novelty and one of the practices that made it truly unique was the flexible work schedules. Semco employees could choose to set their own hours and decide to come in very early in the morning and leave mid-afternoon; or, they could come in late morning and leave late in the evening. It was a system that worked and was very popular among employees. But, it meant that Semco offices were open much earlier and closed much later than other companies.

The front desk receptionists came under the scanner when the Brazilian government introduced a legislation that prohibited receptionists from working for more than six hours. The problem was particularly unique for Semco because the front desk needed to be manned during all the extra hours that the company was in operation. Any other company would have pushed the problem onto a manager, who’d have then tried to negotiate with the receptionists about shifts and so on. However, Semco didn’t do that. Instead, they decided to treat the receptionists as adults and believed they’d be the best people to solve the problem. So, the management simply told the receptionists to make sure that at least one of them was present at the front desk during all working hours.   

When the company made it clear that it didn’t want to control how the receptionists organized schedules among themselves, something phenomenal happened. Though nobody in the office knew which receptionist would be at the front desk at what time, there were no glitches in the system the receptionists had worked out for themselves. The fact that they were given complete autonomy and told that they didn’t need to inform anybody or seek approvals, made it simpler for them to organize themselves without any problems like someone missing their shifts or petty complaints to a manager about the other person and so on.

If at all a manager had been vested with the job, things would have become highly complicated. The manager would have felt compelled to listen to the needs of everyone and it would have been impossible to create a schedule that accommodated everybody’s needs. There would have just been another layer of complexity if the management had decided to choreograph the whole thing.

Here’s another glowing example of the company’s commitment towards people behaving and being treated like adults: There was a factory employees who was exceedingly good at working with steel plates. He was so good that the plates he polished literally shone like mirrors. But he had no sense of responsibility and wasn’t a team player at all. He was like a high-skilled lone wolf, who did whatever he wanted to do and paid no heed to the needs of the team. For instance, there was once some equipment that needed to be delivered by Monday and the team decided to work extra hours and over the weekend to meet the tight deadline. He was the only one who didn’t show up and pitch in with the team.

Eventually, he was dismissed from the company – but not by the HR or the company management. But by his own colleagues and teammates. One fine day, the team decided they’d had enough of him and went to the HR to report that they didn’t want him working in the company anymore. Even though they acknowledged his skill, they unanimously felt he was disrupting the team dynamics and placing pressure on everyone. “In our team, we believe in trusting each other and helping each other out when necessary. But with him, there’s no trust,” they said.

The team’s sense of responsibility towards itself and the company is key here. They identified an individual who didn’t have the responsibility to behave like an adult. And the spirit behind Semco’s practice of treating adults as adults is this: When you don’t use the freedom available to you wisely, there will be consequences…


Expert avatar

Borges, Ian

Co-founder at LeadWise | Partner at Semco Style Institute | Entrepreneur | Lifestyle Strategist | Digital Nomad

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Portuguese, English, French, Spanish

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