People are generally trustworthy, generally good, generally fair. Work is not just what they do to earn money: they just happen to be paid for some of the work that they do. Not raising children. Or studying. Those things are generally unpaid work. Not caring for relatives, or making their neighbourhood a better place by coaching a sports team, that also is unpaid. No: we tend to work to achieve, to connect, to be fulfilled, and some of that effort we spend in places that pay us for it. But don’t think that the paid work is somehow more worthy, somehow more special than the rest.
Work is a shared venture: the value spread between material assets and the people we engage. The material assets are easily quantified, easily counted, easily bought and sold, whilst the people have to be engaged in different ways.
The mistake is to treat people like things, because it devalues, disempowers, distrusts and degrades them. And it’s simply not right, not fair.
An organisation is not a thing itself: it’s a collation of spaces, networks, assets and goodwill. It’s the cumulative potential of everyone and everything connected in a shared space. And whilst our hierarchies and power gradients may convince us that some people are more important than others, no hierarchy makes one person more right, fair or equal than another. What we contribute to an organisation comes from within, is not just mandated from outside.
Am i arguing that the cleaner is as important as the Chief Exec? Not really: but i am arguing that the way we treat the cleaner should be the same as we treat the Chief Exec: both with fairness, both with humility. I don’t argue this from some idealistic perspective that it’s nice to be nice: i argue it because it’s hard to spot the line over which your culture fractures, over which you slip from excellent, to just good, to mediocre. The line between fair and unfair, between empowerment and control, is both very narrow and entirely in our heads. We easily become the thing we despise if we fail to act in the ways we desire for ourself.
You don’t build trust: you earn it. You earn it through actions, over time, within our communities. And in the Social Age, that trust is the foundation of reputation, which in turn leads to Social Authority: that authority which we can exert within our community spaces. In the Social Leadership body of work, i argue that we need to develop Social Leadership to complement our formal, hierarchical leadership, because the formal hierarchy will only get us so far. In social spaces, we need Social Authority to succeed.
I’m reading Lazlo Bock’s book about the culture at Google, where many decisions are distributed within the network: hiring decision, quality assurance decisions, strategic decisions. Distributed so that the community becomes, to large extent, the moderator of quality, the mechanism of first choice for key decision making. In this model, the leader is facilitator, leading to large part through permission of the community, a true Social Leadership style. Sure: leaders in these environments still have formal authority, but they are effective through the distributed social power of the community. The role of the organisation moves away from one of control towards one of empowerment.
Despite it’s best intentions (and there are many good intentions) HR often falls back to being a mechanism (and mindset) of control.
Despite it’s best intentions, it operates without humility, without strongly social leadership, purely on the basis of controlling risk within the organisation. At the cost of certain individuals.
In this environment, a culture of fear and reprisal, an organisation can never be truly dynamic, truly agile. At best, they can hope to compete by force and intent in a static market, but not to adapt and change in a fluid one. When we lack trust, when we lack fairness, we move to transaction, and transaction alone will not allow us to thrive.
The illusion of control is just that: an illusion. Often all we do is drive dissent out of earshot, and by calling it ‘dissent’, we fail to recognise that it may be of great value. Dissenting voices may be the roots of the very agility that we strive for. Effectiveness comes through engagement, not simply control: through building bonds of trust and reciprocal benefit.
I was speaking to a friend at the weekend who described her work environment as ‘becoming toxic’. This seemed odd: she holds a senior role in a global business, and was head hunted into that role. For the environment to turn against her seems odd, and reflects the truth that trust is earn not contracted: the organisation bought her in to drive change, and yet it is actively resisting that change, and starting to use mechanisms of control to reinforce that resistance: this is the classic response of a failed culture. To shut down voices rather than engage with them. To believe that the status quo is the victory.
The ability to create a dynamic and agile culture is not simply a function of age: it’s not true that Google has an advantage because it’s young, or because it’s a tech company. It has an advantage because it’s willing to learn and invest trust within the community. It has an advantage because it strives to be fair, inclusive and empowering. Not always perfectly, but perfectly enough to realise that it doesn’t need more controls. With rules, with mechanisms of control, you can only cage the complexity. You can try to dissuade people by penalising non compliance, by trying to manage them to success, but you can’t truly engage them.
Indeed, the irony of the engagement survey that many organisations run each year is that it’s the only time they solicit the wisdom of the community. The only time we engage is to see if we are engaged.
Like it or not, more often than not HR defaults to being the arbiter of rules, the strongly authoritarian presence in the room and the mechanism of control over individuals. It does this unearth mantle of driving fairness, but it is, in itself, not always fair. It uses hierarchical and positional power to try to enforce what are essentially socially moderated problems.
Do organisations have issues that need to be addressed: about recruitment, behaviour, compliance, engagement? Sure they do. Is hierarchical control the only method to address those issues? No.
A healthy community is one that is to large part self moderating. So take the devolved model of decision making around recruitment, where no one individual has the sole power: it’s more self moderating than an approach that is controlled by HR. Because we tend keep each other honest, especially if we are truly engaged within a community.
I’m increasingly interested in whole system approaches: how the old model of vertical entities, each defined by roles like IT or HR may be part of the problem we need to address. By nature, they default to being self serving and the false belief that they wield both the power and natural authority within the system. Perhaps we need to move towards an organisational design that recognises and empowers communities, where the function of the separate entities is facilitating, not control.
I love count of the number of times i’ve worked in organisations where the momentum of change is lost, eroded and resisted by the very entities that should embrace and empower it. We cannot beat those entities into submission, but rather must engage and evolve them from within. No matter how well intentioned the individuals are (and many are extremely well intentioned), without evolving the structure of the organisation itself, we cannot change it’s intent. Without architecting humility and trust into our DNA, we cannot buy these things or mitigate against the cost we pay without them.
The future organisation will be a shared venture: a partnership, a community, of people and assets, a shared journey, facilities and enabled, not commanded and controlled.