“… too much democracy.”

Posted by jlubans on August 31, 2015

Caption: Not quite ready for independence. (Annie Tao Photography)

The title quote is one of the several explanations for why a bossless office may fail to live up to expectations. It comes from a recent article, Radical Idea at the Office: Middle Managers, on the travails associated with self-management. (I plan to use it as a class reading.)
Treehouse Island, an online coding school of 100 staff, did away with bosses. But, “That experiment broke,” according to CEO Ryan Carson and the article goes into some of the causes of that failure.
The article is insightful because it not only offers examples of what went wrong, but indirectly suggests that eliminating managers is not that simple – there’s more to it than flattening the organization chart. After all, effective managers actually do real work: Do you remember Luther Gulick’s PODSCORB, his executive functions from 1937 (Planning, Organizing, Directing, Staffing, Co-ordinating, Reporting and, Budgeting)?
At the least, when you take away the bunkum - like formal performance appraisal - managers, coordinate and organize, very important aspects of group work.
I would add, that really good managers lead in the sense of leading from the middle. If you fail to address and re-distribute these roles you’re in trouble. It is not intuitive for workers to take on management jobs; those responsibilities have to be recognized, learned and applied within the organization. When I ask my classes which organizational model they prefer – the democratic vs. the autocratic, the majority selects the former. But, as I learn from group projects, many students do not fully appreciate what it means to work in a democratic organization.
The article confirms that when you remove the direction-givers the remaining people may become directionless. You quickly discover that while there may be a few action-taking and independent-thinking people, for the most part many people have become inured to direction taking and having someone else do their thinking, at least on the job.
Instead of thriving when bossless, they flounder looking for someone to point the way.
Now, I have been known to make self managment sound a bit more simple than it really is. For example, this quote from my blog:
“It probably needs repeating. Organizations that de-emphasize the strong boss or the role of management, are not without leadership or management. Leading and following are distributed across the organization instead of boxed up in the org chart. For example, consider what Chris Rufer, the CEO of the no-managers, flat organization, Morning Star means when he says: “Everyone’s a manager here, …. “We are manager rich.”
But, tell that to the folks on the front line, the people Rufer would expect to “step up”, as sports people like to say when the star player is taken out of the game. If you don’t have the skill or experience, how can you possible “step up” and behave like the corporate equivalent of an All American athlete.
In my own experiment in self-management for an organization of 200 I saw a gamut of responses to our flipping what were departments into self-organizing teams. A very few caught on and landed on their feet; they got the idea and were able to work with it; they naturally assumed the action taking and independent thinking roles. Under their leadership, their teams thrived and exceeded expectations. They behaved just like I had hoped they would! However, more than a few clung to the old ways, like in the picture, and persisted in the old top-down thinking. They’d nod and say they were a team, but the behavior was departmental.
What would I do differently? I would add coaching and training – vigorous and specific – for every team. And, I would use trainers who understand what it means to be self managing and how that concept plays out in the workplace. I would leave far less to chance than I did.
The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is a splendid example of a self-organizing, a self-managing group. Each player understands that if she wants to be an Orphean, she will have to think like a conductor. You have to pay attention to more than just your sound, you have to be able to offer up and defend ideas during rehearsal, and you have to think and articulate what you want the sound to be, what the product is to be.
In other orchestras, these responsibilities belong almost exclusively to the conductor, the boss. Orpheus has spent decades perfecting how to be bossless. Of course, some would say, rightly so, that they are not conductorless; instead, they have 35 conductors!
Still it’s a struggle. Even Orpheans, when coaching student symphonies to rehearse and perform without a conductor, too often revert to the directive, telling, boss model, directing rather than letting the students fail and learn.
Another reason I like this article as potential class reading is because it does present examples of what the bossless found difficult. For example, a management professor claims that, “Employees want people of authority to reassure them, to give them direction, it’s human nature.” Do they?
I would counter with that it is more intuitive for humans to spurn authority and to yearn for democracy, but it is far less intuitive to know what that means in day-to-day life, including work. When given a choice workers often choose democratic ideals over the autocratic or the laissez faire. But, as Kurt Lewin famously said, “Democracy he has to learn.” Autocracy is easy; someone tells you what to do. Democracy takes work on everyone in the democracy.
So, why do it? Because the pay off in democracy is significantly greater productivity and creativity and a far more fulfilled workforce.
To borrow from a country music song title, there's no such thing as too much democracy, just like there's no such thing as too much fun;
"It's like too much money, there"s no such thing
It's like a girl too pretty, with too much class
Being too lucky, a car too fast

© John Lubans 2015
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