Letting Go.

Posted by jlubans on April 07, 2014

Caption: The perception; the reality is far less harrowing.

Not long ago I gave a talk to a large group of department heads about Leading from the Middle. It went fairly well, but one participant, seated as far from me as possible, never let up scowling. Was it me, something I said, or something she ate? I suspect it was my topic. Some managers are diametrically opposed to the notion of relinquishing any power – they skipped the sandbox lesson about sharing. They are convinced, genetically and viscerally, if not for him or her, the organization would fall apart. So, when someone like me prattles on, the dudgeon (and insecurity) gets high, they mutter, “Why am I here listening to this foolishness?”

I always do an end-of-semester assessment in my classes, the plus/delta. It seeks, anonymously, what went well and what did not. The results are consistently helpful – lots of positive feedback and some ideas for improvement.
Most students enjoy the 8-week Democratic Workplace class and learn a great deal – they like democracy, the concept of freedom at work for themselves. A few do wonder about the practical side of introducing democratic elements. “Is it not utopian, a fairy tale?” One student offered this delta: “Tell us more about the downside of the Democratic Workplace. We’ve heard (and liked) the benefits.”

That, along with preparing for teaching a webinar* on the topic, has triggered my thinking about a new class segment; one on the tradeoffs, the “costs” of democracy. What exactly do you give up when you – the leader – let go? What’s anxiety inducing about the idea?

Here’s my initial listing of what can be lost, reduced, made less of, along with a few (I can’t help it) offsetting counterpoints:

Loss of control (Anarchy!). Ricardo Semler – a renowned leader of a highly successful democratic company – who writes books for and talks regularly to other CEOs about trusting workers to run things, says 80% won’t ever give up control regardless of improving the bottom line and 20% simply do not trust anyone enough to turn over decision making. Yes, you do lose control, but is that necessarily a bad thing?
My peers, when I was an administrator in research libraries, had an over-riding ambition – to be in the executive suite, and most of all, they wanted to be “the boss”. Besides, the pay and view were better. I suspect even the suggestion of giving up “absolute” control over a decision, would be frightening for those peers. If you no longer have the final word, has your status declined? Or, are you a better leader (and decision maker) for sharing the tough decisions?

Loss of status/respect. External perceptions about who is in charge matter. Any suspicion the “inmates are running the asylum” gets a leader in hot water.
But, if you are sincere in your letting go – to improve the organization in real and quantitative ways – you should gain respect and not lose face (or your job!) It’s your courage, leadership and innovative spirit inspiring the organization forward. Now, if your organization is not supportive of what you are doing, consider yourself gone, regardless of results.
If you are a unit in a large organization – as most libraries are - then you may need to limit just how much democracy you can implement before someone external casts baleful looks your way and unsupportive staff, sensing the lack of support, may begin to undercut – with impunity - freedom initiatives.

Loss of management mystique. When you let staff see the books (the budgets) a lot of the mystery of managing an organization dissipates. Staff can run the numbers and check the monthly summaries. This transparency has always been a plus for me because everyone has access and sees how the organization is spending its money – no secret stashes. Everyone sees the finances and has a better understanding of what can and cannot be done. Open ledgers enable trust.
While I have not heard of drop-offs in executive salaries, the more open the books, the more decision-making shared, the less likely a boss can sustain a claim of being worth many multiples of the organization’s average salary.

Loss of power. Yes, the boss of a democratic organization will lose some of her “legitimate” power. Since leadership is shared, others now intrude on the power that comes with the title on the door and the rug on the floor. If your power is based exclusively on your job description, then yes, you may experience a drop off in your leverage as a boss. But, if your power is based on what you do and how you lead and how you accomplish things – such as sharing power – then you’ll have a more than offsetting increase in “referent” power.

Loss of staff support. True, some staff will resist the transition, even a small one, toward democratic practices for the same reasons the boss does. However, most will relish the increased opportunity and responsibility. No more, “Check your mind at the door, all ye who enter here.” If the research is to be believed about the quantifiable benefits of freeing up the workplace – staff motivation increases and improves. The power they gain is used to maximize resources and services. In my experience with self-managing teams and that of Ricardo Semler of SEMCO and Colleen Barrett of SWA, workers (and the business) thrive in democratic environments.

All you have to do is let go.

* Webinar: “Freedom at Work: New & Old Concepts”
Special Libraries Association
Leadership and Management Division
Webinar by John Lubans.
April 23, 2014 14.00 EST

The book, Leading from the Middle, is available at

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

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