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Democratizing Organizations

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For the tyrant has the power to inflict only that which we lack the strength to resist.

Krishnalal Shridharani – 1939

There is change afoot. Arab countries that had been ruled by authoritarian/despotic figures are undergoing upheaval. And while the verdict will be out for a while, there is widespread hope that something more closely approaching democracy will replace the regimes that existed. There is a good chance that in some of these places one despot will simply be replaced by another, but there is also a chance that should a vibrant democratic entity arise, with free market conditions, that a new center of excellence for commerce, creativity and innovation, and perhaps even tolerance will emerge out of the ashes of the failed states. Allusions to the need for slow gradual change are primary driven by those who benefit the most from a slower pace of change. And contrary to their more recent behaviors, Arab countries have a longer past history of tolerance for people’s differences. The current intolerance of anyone different was and is still a mechanism by which authoritarian regimes hope to keep power, with attention focused on the made-up enemy without rather than on the emptiness within. In many lands constitutions will need to be rewritten, with freedoms enshrined and rights guaranteed. This is a great unfreezing moment, one that the world hasn’t seen since the fall of the Soviet Union, and before a refreezing takes place change needs to be wrought, as much change as possible in order to bring forth the maximum benefits to those who have suffered under oppressive rule. It is scary, yes, for many countries that depended on the stability of the status quo, uncertainty is keeping many awake at night, but the potential benefit is just too great to be ignored or not encouraged.

Could other kinds of organizations, not just nations benefit from some unfreezing of power structures and adoption of new “constitutions” of governance?

My daughter had been off school for a week of vacation surrounding President’s Day. Between vacations and snow days I think she has spent more days at home than in school this winter. At the beginning of the vacation week we headed up to Vermont and did some snow shoeing at Hildene, the summer home of Robert Todd Lincoln, the only one of Abraham Lincoln’s four sons to reach adulthood. Though he did a stint as Secretary of War under James Garfield, he did not become part of a political dynasty. Nevertheless, he did ok for himself, becoming the Chairman of the Pullman Palace Car Company which at one point controlled ¾ of the railroad track in the nation, as well as manufacturing the cars that ran on them.

Later in the week we went to see Mary Poppins on Broadway (discount tickets available at TKTS) and afterwards swung by the NY Public Library, the world’s largest marble structure, on 42nd Street. I was hoping to show her one of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence that is housed there, but found out from the security guard that it is displayed only on July 4th and even with me cajoling him to bring it out just for a few seconds for us to look at he wouldn’t budge. We took a tour of the 3rd floor reading room instead and went through an exhibition that was being held on the texts of three of the world’s religions, and there I did get to show her a Guttenberg bible. Guarding the entrance to the library on 5th Ave. and 42nd St. are Patience and Fortitude, two famous marble lions residing on the north and south side of the entryway staircase. PatienceMayor Fiorello LaGuardia named them Patience and Fortitude in 1930, for the qualities he felt New Yorkers would need to survive the economic depression. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that Patience and Fortitude conquered all things.

Most organizations tend not to be run as democracies, but more like autocracies or oligarchies, and a few like kleptocracies, and what I have been describing will provide some examples of that. Robert Todd Lincoln’s mother Mary, put her foot down and much to the embarrassment of Abraham, refused to let her son enlist in the military until the civil war was pretty much over and then only as an aide to Ulysses S. Grant to ensure that he did not see combat. There was no voting, no general agreement about that decision in the household. Mary Poppins ran her household in a “spit spot” fashion, there was no arguing with her when she wanted something done and of course she used a “spoonful of sugar” to make her “medicine” go down. And New York City’s beloved mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia was an authoritarian figure, never letting anyone forget who was in charge. Though elected he ruled with an iron fist and got his way on most issues. Examples of organizations that are not run in a democratic-like fashion can go on and on, so what exactly does it mean to democratize an organization, say a profit making enterprise, and are there any benefits?

Let’s try an experiment. Read through this list of characteristics of an organization and see how many of these describe where you work.

  • The organization is full of silos or stove piped and the cooperation of people or groups needed to operate smoothly is restricted as everyone takes care of their own interests.
  • Legacy systems and past policies limit the ability to adopt and implement new systems and policies.
  • The organization has become routine in its operation, less able to adjust quickly to new situations.
  • Personnel and resources already allocated for existing tasks are not easily available for new needs.
  • Subordinates fearful of displeasing their superiors may not report accurate or complete information needed to make decisions.
  • The initial vision of the organization, the founder’s sentiments, and what it stood for has eroded, and myths or stories of the founding of the organization as well as their symbolism fade.
  • If a strong ideology is present in the organization, firm adherence to it may cause inattention to actual external conditions and how the organization needs to change for effective functioning.
  • Deteriorating efficiency and competency of the organizational bureaucracy, or excessive controls and regulations, may make the system’s policies and operation ineffective.
  • Internal institutional conflicts and personal rivalries and hostilities may harm, and even disrupt, the operation of the organization.
  • High potential talent, top performers and those newly hired may begin to depart the organization in response to conditions, restrictions, bureaucracy and pressure to conform to “the way it is done here”.
  • Customers are beginning to become apathetic, skeptical, and a few even hostile to the organization.
  • Corporate vs. field, line of business or old guard vs. newly hired differences may become acute.
  • The power hierarchy of the organization is always unstable to some degree, and at times extremely so. Individuals do not remain in the same position in the ranking, but may rise or fall to other ranks or be removed entirely and replaced by new persons.
  • Business Units within the organization may act to achieve their own objectives, even going against the direction of the organization overall.
  • With so many decisions made by so few people in the organization, mistakes of judgment, policy, and action are likely to occur.
  • If the organization decentralizes controls and decision making, in an attempt to become more effective, its ability to coordinate the organization becomes further eroded.

There are 16 separate statements above describing organizational characteristics. How many applied to your employer? Two? Five? Eight?

I have to admit something to you. These statements were not from a list of organizational characteristics, but rather, I slightly edited and disguised the work of Gene Sharp who wrote “From Dictatorship to Democracy” and this is his list of characteristics and weaknesses of dictators and dictatorial regimes.

For profit organizations are not about to become democracies in the sense that the staff will take a vote and decide on a course of action. Organizations spend much time and effort in selecting and developing leaders whose responsibility it is to lead. The best leaders though are one’s that listen to their people, reflect on what they have learned, and they work diligently to align the organization’s goals to the personal goals of the employees, establishing a mutuality of benefit. By being part of the organization the employee’s personal goals and life ambitions are being accomplished at the same time that the organization’s goals are being accomplished, hence they have a shared interest. This shared interest will result in a greater buy-in on the part of all employees to the organization’s goals. Organizations and specifically leadership that takes into account their employees attitudes, personal goals, life ambitions are behaving in more democratic fashion. Organizations – leadership, of any sort, that attempt to impose their will on employees by means of leverage or formal power may win the battle but will lose in the long run as any employee who can escape will do so, leaving only those who are trapped by circumstance or ability.

In study after study the leadership characteristics that most strongly rise to the top as being worthy of followers are described as:

  • Honest
  • Forward Looking
  • Inspiring
  • Competent.

Those are not exactly the characteristics of someone who forcefully imposes their will on others.

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Kouzes, J., Pozner, B., 2007, The Leadership Challenge, 4th Edition, Jossey Bass, San Francisco.

Hildene website, 2010, http://www.hildene.org/

NY Public Library website, 2010, http://www.nypl.org/locations/schwarzman

Sharp, G., 2002, From Dictatorship to Democracy, 4th Edition, The Albert Einstein Institution, East Boston.

© 2011 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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