Wednesday, July 05, 2020

Independence Day

At various points in my career, exasperated bosses said to me, “This is not a democracy.” Of course, their main purpose was to try to drive some sense into my head and stop me questioning so many decisions by senior people. What they did was to make me ask, usually inside my head this time, why not? What if some of the ideals of democracy were applied to organizations? On public radio this July 4th morning, the presenters read the whole of the Declaration of Independence to celebrate the 230th birthday of the United States of America. That set me thinking again. What if we applied the thinking of this much-admired document, drawn up by Thomas Jefferson, to the way people organize business today?

By “holding these truths to be self-evident,” the Declaration of Independence opens with a bold refusal to argue over niceties or split philosophical hairs. Conventional leaders often attack people with new ideas by declaring them idealists, full of impractical theories. But from the start, the Declaration of Independence is one of the most idealistic statements imaginable, full of the fervor of people refusing to accept old, dictatorial ways, long justified by convention and precedent. Any organization built on the thoughts of the Founding Fathers could not help but be innovative, radical and determined to sweep away tired arguments for staying with the status quo. If the leaders of the United States in 1776 had been of similar mind to many of today’s CEOs, no revolution would ever have taken place. It would have been judged too rash, idealistic and impractical.

What truths then should today’s organizations hold to be self-evident? What ideals should they proclaim, in place of so much craven appealing to the unholy triad of precedent, pragmatism and assumed practicality? No revolution has ever been ignited by a demand for pragmatism. No organization has stirred the enthusiasm and commitment of its employees by listing precedents and appealing to their loyalty to convention.

What about starting with the assertion that “all men are created equal?” Today, of course, we must add all women too, though Thomas Jefferson may have been using the word “man” to mean “mankind” as was common in his day. If all are created equal and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” discrimination cannot be tolerated—neither on the basis of race, gender, age, sexual orientation nor any other grounds that deny the equality of human beings. The spirit of these stirring words could well be extended to outlaw elitism and a comforting belief in favoring “the right kind of people” or “those who are like us.” Many organizations waste human talent on a grand scale because those in charge act like the kings and nobles of the past: they divide others into those they automatically assume have ability and potential, and those they assume do not and never will have.

If all are created equal, all have potential, though some may currently make better use of it than others do. In my imaginary democratic organization, it would be the job of those in positions of authority to find, develop and encourage the potential in every employee. No more setting some on a fast track and ignoring the rest. The aristocracies of the past may have use birth as the sole criterion for automatic advancement, while today’s organizations use attendance at the right schools and playing the right political games, but the results are much the same.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness
What of the “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?” No one is put to death by a cabal of top executives (well . . . not literally . . . yet), but I would argue that people are deprived of much of the right to life when dictatorial decisions are handed down that destroy their livelihoods. It cannot be argued that no one should ever lose their job; some countries have come close to legislating that and found extremely negative results. But surely no one should be deprived of their livelihood—or even of their pleasure in their work—for trivial reasons or without due process? If people have a right to life, no one must be permitted to diminish that right without being called to account to justify their actions. Instead of lay-offs being the instant response when profits fall, leaders should first have to show that action is not only justifiable, but clearly preferable to the available alternatives. People might still lose their jobs, but they would at least be assured it was not done purely to boost their bosses’ share options.

Liberty, so revered in American national consciousness, sometimes seems to be a dirty word in organizations. Many employees have no choice even over detailed aspects of their work, and no say in decisions, great or small, that may affect them closely. Their only freedom is to leave if they don’t like the way the organization is run. Traditionalists fear that giving wider freedom, better information and input to corporate decisions would undermine management authority, cause delays, make the business less effective, and ultimately lessen profits. The British aristocrats in 1776 said just about the same thing regarding the complaints of the people living in their American possessions. In organizations, liberty does not need to be license or anarchy, any more than it does in a state. People who freely accept rules and laws honor them more closely that those who must be forced into compliance. In his draft of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Why should organizations be held to a lesser standard?

As for “the pursuit of happiness,” if organizations accepted this as a self-evident right for their employees, we should no longer need to concern ourselves with questions of work/life balance. Work is—or should be—a major source of happiness and satisfaction, if it is handled properly and kept in balance with the rest of life. Time to relax, pursue other interests and spend quality time with friends and family are surely rights. Workaholics, in an ideal democratic organization, would be gently rebuked and sent home to recall their duties to their families and their health, while each person would be free to follow their own version of happiness, limited only by boundaries and obligations designed to further the happiness of all.

Visionary Leadership
In 1776, I am sure many people—not just the British parliament and King George the Third—said the new republic of the United States was based on a hopelessly impractical, utopian vision, and would never survive the rigors of the “real world.” They were wrong then, as many who say the same of the importance of ideals and values in leadership are wrong today. What logic is there in honoring an idealistic notion such as democracy in political life and rejecting similar values as the basis for organizing the workplace? Conventional organizations are not democracies in fact or in spirit. When I consider the absolute, dictatorial, and hierarchical nature of the typical command-and-control bureaucracy, I feel sure King George would have approved.

I’ll leave you with a part of the Declaration of Independence that is rarely quoted. It reads:
That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends [the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness], it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

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Anonymous said...

The main reason why there is no "democracy" in commercial organizations is that it's only the owners of the organization who have put in the capital to start the organization.

Among the owners/shareholders, there is of course a democracy, based on the number of votes/shares each owner has (in turn usually based on how much capital each owner has invested).

Were a company formed in such a way that each person involved owns one share, having each invested an equal amount of capital in the company, then you would have an organization like you have described.

8:13 AM  
Photopoppy said...

I weep that the management of my company does not read your writing (and that it's a place where I don't feel safe suggesting that they do). I'm reading this less than a week after saying good-bye to 11 of my colleagues, who have been laid off, shrinking our office down to a whopping 17 people, any or all of whom could be next.

8:23 AM  
Lionel Barret de Nazaris said...

mmmm...interesting but you need to distinguish between thinking (strategy, part of marketing, etc) et acting (doing what have been thought the best).

As I see it, you need to be as open as possible during the thinking phase (anybody could participate) and as focused as possible during the acting phase (meaning there is one and only one team leader).

2:37 AM  

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