Ants & Democracy

Posted by jlubans on December 19, 2012  •  Leave comment (2)

I will be showing my Democratic Workplace class the NOVA DVD, “Ants - Little Creatures Who Run the World.” The DVD features Dr. Edward O. Wilson’s research and was produced in the mid to late 90s. I’m using it to augment our class’ discussion of complex systems and how leaderless, self-organizing units work together to achieve group results.
Caption: Leaf-cutter ants laden with food for the nest*.
According to Dr. Wilson humans have an inherent weakness: we emphasize the needs of the individual over the needs of society. The final scenes of the DVD show a despoiled earth, all human life extinct. But as the camera zooms in, we see ants zipping around and through the concrete debris and metallic detritus of what used to be civilization. The ants win, continuing their 100 million year run of biological success! Clearly Dr. Wilson (or NOVA) thinks that the ants’ cooperation and seemingly selfless way of life (or, as the script has it anthropomorphically: “selfless devotion”) is vastly superior to mankind’s tendency toward selfish behavior. If we extend to the workplace the viewpoint that individual needs trump those of the group, it suggests that man is largely incapable of cooperating or collaborating. I expect that devout fans of the hierarchy are nodding vigorously in agreement. “I told you so! If humans are to accomplish anything, they need direction, the firmer the better.” (These same advocates for limiting personal freedom, of course, always exempts themselves from the coercive and necessary guidance for the masses.)
Unlike ants, humans are imbued (divinely or over time through evoution) with freedom and the capacity to make choices (bad and good), to decide for themselves. Also, we have the unique attribute of language to argue for and explain our choices.
The critics hold that if we got rid of choice, we could have a cooperative society and be better off. Charles Handy, in writing about the concept of subsidiarity, says this re individual freedom: “Choices, in fact, are our privilege, although they come disguised as problems, and stealing people’s choices is wrong.”**
Actually, humans do cooperate, just not consistently. (Chapter 23, "Sacred Teams", in the book, is especially relevant to humans cooperating. It has my observations about the Semana Santa processions in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.)
Is this inconsistency in cooperating a fatal weakness for our kind? I’ll ask the class, “Do you agree that this is a weakness? In what ways? Does taking away a worker’s elbow-room for making decisions eliminate democracy in the workplace?

*While hiking in Costa Rica in early November, I observed, close-up, long lines of leaf-cutter ants, burdened with freshly cut leaf segments, hurrying across rocks, rutted earth, fallen tree limbs – nothing could stop their march back to the nest. The DVD confirms that the harvest does not kill the trees. New leaves will soon grow back for another bountiful harvest.

**Handy, Charles. “Subsidiarity Is the Word for It.” Across the Board (magazine); June, 1999, 36: 7-8.

“Stealing People’s Choices Is Wrong.”

Posted by jlubans on May 30, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)


I have a micromanaging friend; let’s call him Sam. He’s a boss and at the top of his field - well regarded by external peers - but I’d say Sam’s organization is working far below capacity. His inability to trust, his lack of confidence in subordinates is all-pervasive. One staffer likens Sam to Kim Jong-Un – the ultimate micromanager.
Over a period of years, many of this organization’s best people have gone elsewhere. Unfazed, Sam pats himself on the back; his people are in demand because of the high quality experience they have gained by working for him!
Perhaps worse, since everything has to go through Sam, a lot is left undone; new outreach programs, new uses of existing resources, remain in suspense.
I pick up on the notion that since he is not ever satisfied, that even competent staff do lackluster work; which of course fulfils Sam’s expectations. Why bother to do your best if whatever you do is always nitpicked to pieces?
I like Sam, he’s a good friend, but then I do not work for him. (By the way, most micromanagers are not likeable because their mistrust foozles relationships. And, some are mean and petty – they enjoy finding fault and taunting; Sam’s not one of those).
Were he to ask me for advice about improving his leadership I’d start the conversation with a valuable bit of democratic work place philosophy from Charles Handy: “Choices, in fact, are our privilege (our right), although they come disguised as problems, and stealing people’s choices is wrong.”
If Sam mulls that over and wants more, I’d recommend Rebecca Knight’s article from August, 2015, “How to Stop Micromanaging Your Team”.
Why is micromanaging harmful? Knight responds: It “displaces the real work of leaders, which is developing and articulating a compelling and strategically relevant vision for your team.”
In my experience, leaders who did this “real work” developed highly productive and successful organizations.
Ms. Knight prescribes several ways by which to bring about a change in how Sam looks at people and what he expects of them. She would ask: “What can you do to give your people the space they need to succeed and learn? How should you prioritize what matters? And how do you get comfortable stepping back?”
She recommends “undertaking a cross-evaluation assessment.” Gather confidential data from your people—or better yet, have a third party do It with a guarantee of anonymity. What Sam hears may be sobering – remember the Kim Jong-Un comment? - “but it’s critical to understanding the broader patterns and reactions and the impact [your micromanaging has] on your team.”
Looking back on my own career, that cross-evaluation assessment would have benefited me, an extreme macromanager, (sometimes, “hands off” is worse than “hands on”!)
And, I could have been a better boss for my direct reports had I asked each of them these questions:
“How can I help you best? Are there things I can do differently? Are our overall objectives clear to you and do you feel you have the support and resources to accomplish them?”
I always assumed that my highflying objectives were clear to others. Bad assumption.
So, there’s a balance to strive for. Obviously the newbie employee needs direction and supervision, the veteran less so. It comes down to knowing when to let go. I do not know if Sam ever will know? Do you?

© Copyright John Lubans 2016