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Monday, June 18, 2020

Where does your allegiance lie?

Why do we persist with an approach to organization devised during the Dark Ages?

Variations on the medieval Feudal System have been the basis of virtually all organizations, from nations to corporations and clubs, for the past 1000 years. In all that time, the constant conflicts of allegiance inherent in feudal arrangements have produced countless wars, rebellions, heresies, and conflicts of every kind. Today’s organizations are still suffering the negative effects of an approach that tries to stifle dissent and enforce conformity from top to bottom. Can’t we find a better way?
Wars between corporate barons and ambitious underlings are probably more common today than ever before. It’s inherent in the system we use. As the old saying goes: “Big fleas have little fleas upon their back to bite ’em. And little fleas have smaller fleas—and so ad infinitum.” How do you keep everyone in line? More than a thousand years ago people in Europe created the Feudal System to deal with this problem. It’s still the basis of a great deal of organizational practice today.

Ruling a nation and running an organization are quite similar in some respects. In both cases, those in charge cannot control or supervise everything personally. They have to rely on others to do much of the work of ruling for them.

Under the Feudal System, the king (read CEO) is the ultimate authority. He ruled through a group of top nobles (read Board Members and Division Heads) who owed him their allegiance. That is, they swore to serve him, obey his commands, and be loyal to his position as ultimate ruler. In turn, these nobles worked through lesser nobles (read middle managers) who swore allegiance to them—and so on, down to the lowest of the low at the bottom. Everyone had his or her place, defined by the person to whom they owed their allegiance.

In theory, this produced an orderly society based on a fixed hierarchy—just like today’s organizations. The glue that held it all together was allegiance. That’s why breaking that allegiance was seen as such a terrible crime, usually punished by an especially nasty death.

So far, so good. But allegiance is a tricky thing. It’s claimed by many other sources besides whoever is above you in the hierarchy. In medieval times, for example, the church claimed the allegiance of all believers (which was pretty much everyone), and continually tried to set allegiance to its commands as “higher” than any earthly claims. That caused continual friction between kings and the church (which is why King Henry VIII in England finally broke with the pope and declared himself to be both king and head of the English church).

Then those pesky barons and nobles, just like many executives today, couldn’t see why the king (CEO) was any better than them. Many decided to break their allegiance and rebel—taking along those who swore allegiance to them—and attempt to become kings in their turn. For their followers, the choice was them a hard one: either to stick with the baron (and risk being punished as traitors to the king), or stick with allegiance to the king (and face immediate punishment from the baron). Since the king was usually far away and the baron’s executioners local, most went with avoiding the most local threat. Nothing much has changed there either.

When today’s organizations abandon strict hierarchies, they unwittingly create even more conflicting allegiances. To bypass awkward division heads, some CEOs have created business units or profit centers, whose heads report (give allegiance) directly to them. Then there are distinct professional groups (such as HR, finance, IT) who have patterns of allegiance within their own function, thus provoking still more conflict with the wider allegiances laid down by the overall hierarchy.

To complete this picture of clashing allegiances, we need to add the allegiance to people hold to friends, family, ideals, career aims, and—most subversive to hierarchy of all—allegiance to themselves and their own needs. If the people who see major generational differences in today's workplaces are correct, younger people also have quite different patterns of allegiance than their elders: more personal, less based on convention,duty, or ambition.

Conflicting allegiances are common sources of problems and stress in organizations and they aren’t resolved easily. As I’ve already noted, well-meaning attempts to remove the rigid hierarchical patterns common in the past have created more conflicts, not fewer. All these so-called dotted-line reporting arrangements, the shifting allegiances due to membership of various teams, the personal allegiances, and the inner allegiances to ideas and beliefs produce clashes that no one can reconcile.

It would be easier if everyone shared the same ultimate set of goals. They don’t. Name any size of organizational unit, from a division to an individual, and each one will have at least some goals that differ from those held by the other units.

Maybe the only answer is to let go of the remnants of the Feudal System at last and forget all about allegiances. They aren’t the only possible kind of organizational “glue.” Some fundamentalist religions use strict dogma instead, but I don’t think that is much better. Others, like Buddhism, rely more on a shared set of ideals and values. That seems more promising to me.

How could this work in an organization? You would begin with a clear set of ideals—such as superb quality or outstanding customer service—and make sure that everyone was working towards these goals within their individual jobs. Then you would reward actions that served these ideals well and discourage those that did not. You would not specify exactly how each person should achieve the shared goals. Instead, they would be trusted to find their own way, within the overall demands of their job. Continual improvement would be required of everyone, since the goal would always be to do better, not to follow the boss’s orders or replicate wherever you are today.

I’ve never worked for Toyota, but their approach sounds a lot like this. In contrast, their US and European competitors mostly continue to use variants of the Feudal System, rewarding loyalty and hierarchical allegiances. Might that explain why Toyota has been so successful in such a short time?

History shows us that focusing on allegiances quickly produces an unending stream of conflicts, generates stress, and promotes command-and-control and rule by fear. It also stifles dissent and the emergence of new ways of thinking. Even the control it allows those at the top of the hierarchy isn’t too strong—especially in today’s world of open Internet communications and global mobility.

I think it’s probably time we gave the Feudal System a decent burial and looked for another, better way to organize.



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4 Comments:

NLK said...

I've been watching a great number of movies on Japanese Feudal history and I recently watched James Burke's first "Connections" series. The idea that companies are just fiefs and feudal kingdoms has come to my mind repeatedly. I feel that when you have this type of feudalism ruling not just individual companies but industry you gob up the channels for communication which result in collaboration and real innovation and radically innovative products. The internet is an ultimate example of this type of connection. I can only hope and wonder what innovations might come from the sharing that will happen via the net.

7:34 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for a fascinating comment, NLK.

I know nothing about Japanese Feudal history, but what you say rings true to me.

One of the worst aspects of fiefdoms is that their owners defend them to the death almost.

Only yesterday I encountered an example of someone defending her "patch" furiously, when the result was both to alienate another person and deny the operation an innovation that might have been both useful and a sign of a new way forward.

I don't think that organizations can afford to indulge managers in this way.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:53 AM  
Charlie said...

I agree that it's better to forget about allegiances. It may be great to join a group that shares the same goals, but, with the continuing conflict against groups, it will make the situation worse.

11:10 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Charlie.

I'm glad you found this article interesting.

Keep reading, my friend.

8:37 AM  

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