The un-hierarchy.

Posted by jlubans on July 01, 2014

Caption: Why you may hate your job.

Decades ago, Fred Emery summarized what people want from work:
Adequate elbowroom for decision-making
Opportunity to learn at work
Variety in work
Mutual support and respect
A desirable future

Pretty straight forward and I’ve had no reason to question his conclusions. These elements, when present, make for a great place to work, whether in a hierarchy or not. However, in my research, I’ve found these elements most often present in un-hierarchical structures. I think in Emery’s day he was a proponent of team-based organizations.
On June 1, the New York Times published research on why people hate working.
The researchers concluded that there were four needs, when met, which make employees feel better and work better: Renewal, Value, Focus, and Purpose.
Renewal refers to taking breaks, short and long. The fewer breaks taken and the more people work beyond 40 hours, the worse they feel and become less engaged. (Engagement is a measure of effectiveness – of doing a good job or not.) A supervisor’s encouraging the worker to take breaks doubles the employee’s sense of health and well-being and they are more likely to stay with the company.
Value is about supportive supervisors who care about the employee’s well being. As a result the worker feels better about his work and wants to stay at the job.
Focus relates to the ability to work on one thing at a time rather than experiencing an Internet-fueled burnout. Probably more so than in the good old BI days, (before the net) the worker is pulled in multiple directions at all hours and days of the week. Multi-tasking detracts from focus. The more “focus” the more the worker feels engaged and does a good job.
And, just like Emery found, staff work best when they regard their work as meaningful, that what they do is for a good purpose.

A good friend asked me to comment – in absentia - on an upcoming discussion at the Las Vegas meeting of the American Library Association (ALA) this week. A sub, sub, sub-group of the 60,000 member ALA will take on the question of what library organizational structure (management model) is best for 21st century libraries?

One could ask, why bother? Isn’t it a given that the boxed in hierarchy is the one and only way to run your business? If you agree, then let me ask you, “Why?”
“Well, It’s obvious, it’s all around us, it works!”
But, even if that were true – which I doubt - where’s it written that the best way to organize is the way we’ve got it now? Here are just a few of the inherent assumptions about the hierarchy: People want and have to be led; workers do best when their work is structured and controlled. Supervisors add value by making sure work gets done; the supervisor shepherds the largely unthinking worker. Left to his or her own devices, the worker will dither.

What assumptions can we make about the un-hierarchy. Well, for starters rewrite, as opposites, the stated assumptions for the hierarchy.
How do those opposites sound, how would they play out in the real work world? What organizational structure best serves those opposites?
Here are the discussion questions I sent to my friend:

1. Does your current organizational arrangement get in the way of what you want to do?
2. Do you need freedom to do a good job? How much?
3. Would genuine empowerment make a difference in how well you do your job?
4. Would you prefer less freedom, more being told what to do?

I look forward to what my friend discovers in Las Vegas.
What are your answers to my four questions?

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

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