Leaders’ Categorical Imperatives vs. Free Will of Employees


September 26, 2011

Have you ever worked for someone who led by categorical imperatives?

You know this leader, every command they give to the team is phrased in such a way that it must not only be done, but must be done in the exact manner stated, with urgency and without question.  I know leaders who attempt to lead this way and a fair number of parents who use the same tactics.  The problem is that most issues that arise are not categorical imperatives.

The idea of a categorical imperative, a command that we are compelled to follow regardless of our desires, was first introduced by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.  He made this idea central to his ethical theory on how moral law figures into our day to day responses to imperatives bestowed upon us.  According to Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “the fundamental principle of morality — the CI — is none other than the law of an autonomous will.”  In other words, we are all uniquely able to determine what actions and imperatives are aligned with our morals and whether or not we will adhere to that when we decide whether or not to do something.

In The Workplace

Justified categorical imperatives in the workplace may take the form of those that involve safety or that prevent theft.  It can also include those directives that prevent physical harm to colleagues.  However, most imperatives given by leaders are far more hypothetical and are at the free will of the employees involved.  Commands such as:

  • Sell X amount of widgets by December 31st or you won’t receive a bonus
  • This proposal must be done by 8:00 am tomorrow or you are fired!
  • Revenue needs to increase by x% in your department or you will be forced to eliminate positions

While these are all certainly worthy of action and will cause a great amount of stress, none are categorical imperatives.  These are all important but are at your free will whether or not you comply.  As long as you work, there will always be someone telling you what needs to be done.  The message today is that regardless of how urgent and categorical a request sounds, keep your perspective and realize that you have more power and control than you think.

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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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