The More Equal Animal

Posted by jlubans on October 20, 2019

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Prior to 2010, I’d visit Latvia for stays of one to two weeks. When I started to teach there for months at a time I became more of a resident and less of a myopic tourist. And, some of the local political issues became more apparent.
I heard (and still hear) of the Latvian Oligarchs. No, this is not a Riga soccer team.
Rather, these are powerful and wealthy individuals. Hardly savory, yet largely legal, they somehow cornered the market on goods and services of all kinds.
In 1991, after 50 years of totalitarian tyranny, they landed on their feet deep in clover.
You may wonder, how did anyone acquire wealth in an economy routinely pillaged by Russian occupiers?
Privatization.
Latvia’s oligarchs, by hook or by crook, shoved their way to the front of the line at the privatization trough and proved themselves trenchermen second to none.
They are the quick of the “quick or the hungry” adage.
A connected insider could purchase, say, a Soviet factory worth millions for $1.
And, once you - a newly minted oligarch - started production, voila! “Happy Times Are Here Again!”
If anything, the Latvian oligarchy is a case study in Animal Farm’s “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” They’re the “more equal animals” shoveling down the larger share, deservedly so!
Not in the least embarrassed, oligarchs often conspire - yes, conspire - to influence decisions made by elected legislators.
How do they remain in power? Big bucks and the old ways help. Due to a glacial judiciary, it takes years for flagrant cases of corruption to get to a jury.
In the meantime, the indicted oligarch steps far, wide and handsome.
There are even gossip magazines – in a nation of less than 2 million - that cover the soap operas of the most flamboyant.
Inevitable.
German sociologist Robert Michels claimed in 1911 that rule by an elite, or oligarchy, “is inevitable as an ‘iron law’.”
While he studies political groups he believed that any organization, “including those committed to democratic ideals and practices, will inevitably succumb to rule by an elite few”.
So what’s this got to do with the workplace, especially a democratic one?
Well, most top down hierarchies qualify as oligarchies.
An organization leans toward an oligarchy once its legitimate leaders claim or are said to possess superior knowledge, skills, and status.
Like the above graphic of the blindfolded man, I remember at one not-for-profit job feeling like I was battling shadows.
My oligarchy, composed of those with legitimate power would make secret decisions that affected the overall organization.
While not wealthy like our Latvian oligarchs, this group had cornered decision-making and believed it knew best.
An oligarchy may include “influencers” or people with expert power who insinuate their way into the inner circle of decision makers.
The nominal leader – the boss - is usually part of the oligarchy, but not always. A weak or sidelined leader has reason to fear her oligarchs; they’ll figure out ways to get rid of that leader.
In my experience, one effective strategy for purging an unwanted leader was to undermine the leader through connections in the parent organization – in other words conspire to influence the boss’s boss.
What to do?
To counter the oligarchy, a leader committed to democratic values should assure that the general staff remains active in the organization and that leaders not be granted absolute control. (This is no small task since every organization includes many people - sheep and "yes men" followers- who want direction and no more.)
The more open the lines of communication and the more frequent the use of shared decision-making processes, the more difficult it becomes for an oligarchy to gain power.
In other words, keep decisions out of the shadows.
Truly independent followers – effective, self-starting and loyal to the organizational good - are quintessential in keeping the inevitable oligarchy at bay. It’s the leader’s do-or-die role to encourage and to protect these followers.
The harm oligarchies do:
If you deprive individuals of the power to make decisions (self-rule) that affect their work lives, employees may give up, become apathetic and withdraw into passive rules enforcement.
Worse, the oligarchy will seek to stifle those followers who question their wisdom and authority. Someone who excels outside the oligarchy may be perceived as a threat and will be targeted for removal.
Top down rule can erode individual innovation, initiative and risk taking. This centralization of power in the hands of the few may well account for low voter participaiton in democratic elections. Why vote if those in power do not hear or represent you?
Customers, if they have a choice, will take their business elsewhere.
Are there oligarchs where you work? Maybe you are part of an oligarchy? If you regard yourself as indispensable and more knowledgeable than those you serve, you are well on your way.
If you do not lust to be an oligarch, what can you – as an effective follower or leader – do to beat back those who would centralize decision-making?
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And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019

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