"The Dog Under Your Desk"

Posted by jlubans on February 04, 2014

My new class on the Democratic Workplace meets for the first time this week. In preparation, I’m in the throes of defining the concepts behind the class. I have lists of what it is and what it is not, but no coherent manifesto.
People ask me, “What is the Democratic Workplace?” “Does everyone vote on everything?” “Is it a socialist idea?” What exactly is Freedom at Work? Is it a New England town hall meeting? Or, is it something akin to participatory management, in which some of the organization’s decision-making is shared with staff? Is it a kindly capitalism, gently exploiting labor?
Well, perhaps it is a mix of all that. A hybrid, then. But, it does have something else that sets it apart; the real Democratic Workplace (DW), in the right circumstances, gets results. It can be more productive, quantitatively, than the Hierarchy. (In my personal experience of freeing up a tradition-bound Hierarchy, in which I implemented many democratic ideas, we danced rings around our traditionally organized competitors. Other explorers of the DW report similar improvements.)
Let’s see if I can get it right: The Democratic Workplace includes elements of democracy (rule by people) more than do other systems of organization; it is an evolving hybrid (imagine two overlapping circles (Venn); the overlap is the hybrid; the DW is waxing, the Hierarchy waning) blending the elements of a less restrictive Hierarchy/Bureaucracy with the freedom of the DW. The DW relies heavily on individuals taking ownership of their work – thinking about what they do - and having the freedom to make decisions about their work (hence the improved productivity). The worker’s perspective is that of an owner, a manager. A DW worker has authority commensurate with his/her responsibility; motivation is internal.
The leader – yes, there is one – is of the unboss* variety.
What’s that? Well, someone that let’s go of the minutiae and empowers (gives power away) workers to accomplish goals, to get the job done. Someone that listens to worker ideas and says “Do it” more than “Don’t” – or she may say nothing since doing is preferred.
It is a work in progress,
it is the Gettysburg address, “…of the people, by the people, for the people ….",
It’s Lao Tzu
and Thoreau applied to where we work.
The DW hears the customer more clearly, listens better, than those agencies with the customer on the other side of the bulletproof glass. The DW customer/client/user is not the enemy; the DW has no monopolistic delusions; it is not OK to be unpleasant and uninviting.

OK, OK! Basta! How easy is it to implement?
A new organization can implement DW ideas more easily than can an old one.
There’s no template. Just like the hierarchy evolved over a couple hundred years, from a highly regimented bureaucracy to something far less so, a blend of Theories X ,Y and Z, it will take time - a lot of it - to introduce and refine elements, like “open books”, effective teams, and “egalitarian salaries” and to flatten the organization. The process speeds up once people see positive results. But, and this is a big but (hah!), the beneficiaries of the hierarchy will do all they can to sabotage the shift.
The organizational chart may change monthly; no one gets to stay in his or her spot for too long, including the unboss. Regular movement in the organization is encouraged, facilitated but not mandated. The goal is a mutually satisfactory balance of fulfilling the needs of the organization and of the individual. Neither is the slave of the other.
Work is as important as ever, even more so. It is understood that the organization must take in energy and resources to continue to thrive, to evolve, to avoid irrelevance. That’s nothing new.
The DWs S-shaped curve which depicts an organization’s life span is upward, not downward. You re-invent, adapt as necessary to survive and to excel.
There’s no blueprint to follow but the unboss and others have the idea, the vision of what it can be. The vision trusts in the overall notion that when people have similar interests and capabilities and are given authority and responsibility they will do better on their own, than under supervision. There’s no need for external motivation.
I have to say that no one has completed the entire puzzle – with all the pieces in place, the riddle solved. As a proponent (and a practitioner) of the DW I am aware that many DW ideas have been put into practice. Ideas like creating effective teams, setting your own salary, giving spending authority to project teams, working without managers, eliminating formal evaluation, and sharing the budget.
While the DW can be imagined as an orchestra without a conductor it is not without leadership or management. It is made up of musicians that want to understand a piece of music as well as the conductor and then interpret it as if they were playing the whole piece, not just their instrumental part. The musicians select the music, decide on the theme, and schedule the rehearsals.
The DW welcomes independent, critical thinking and action-taking followers; there are fewer "survivors", fewer of the alienated, fewer yes people, fewer sheep-like followers than in the Hierarchy.
DW staff steer away from the usual jealousies and infighting found in any group; there is more energy spent on producing and less spent on discussing.
The DW permits staff to help rather than hinder; it dispenses with jargon; it favors an easily understood language. If something is patently wrong, the DW permits – writ large -the wrong to be righted, without endless discussion. But, let’s keep in mind that the DW takes teamwork, it is not a maverick or a vehicle for pettiness or caprice, granting some favors, denying others. It does things with intelligence and awareness. If it errs, it self corrects. That intelligence emanates from the freedom enjoyed by its well-qualified staff, to do what is right. The law is obeyed; all else is open to question. We do not endanger, nor do we stymie just because someone has a need to officiate. The golden rule rules.

The DW is the worker who improves what he does without consulting the boss. Without having to get permission.
It is the worker who screws up and owns up to it and goes on to do a better job the next day, without fear of reprisal,.
If a worker is not performing well, then we find out why and try to do something about it. If there’s nothing that can be done, it is time for change, and not just for the “scapegoat” employee, as in the Hierarchy; if the worker is weak, the team leaders, the team, share the responsibility.
The DW recognizes that 95% of the staff do not need to be controlled.
The DW understands that 5% may need extra training and discipline, for legitimate reasons, not just for willful neglect or incompetence.
The DW expects great things of its staff and provides the resources for that to happen.
The DW is a “cool” place to work; it has a waiting list of applicants, all for the right reasons.
It’s not “dog eat dog,” it’s the dog under your desk.

*I first used – maybe even coined - the term unboss in my 2006 essay, “The Invisible Leader”, about the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Tuesday’s Leading from the Middle Library: Saginaw Valley State University, 
Melvin J. Zahnow Library, University Center, Michigan, USA

If your library lacks a copy of Leading from the Middle it can be ordered here.

Copyright John Lubans 2014

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