Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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The balance of power

Conscious Businesses are usually businesses that rely on the ‘full empowerment’ of the people who work in them.

By full empowerment I simply mean a situation where people are treated as free, autonomous, responsible human beings – able to decide everything for themselves, without being told what to do, or coerced in any way.

There are good business reasons for this:

  • people who are fully empowered are more motivated, and stay more motivated
  • this leads to more innovation, better products and services, and better quality

And there are good ethical reasons too: people in conscious businesses are treated as humans, and an important human right is to be free – to make one’s own choices and decisions.

Despite these obvious benefits, we find many managers are worried by the idea of fully empowered people. We regularly comes across two sets of interconnected fears:

  • The first is that a business where people are fully empowered will spiral into chaos. The fear is that nothing will get done, or if it does it will be happening randomly and not aligned with the ‘strategy’.
  • The second is more personal: that the manager will suffer personally if they lose status, control and power.

I’ll come to the second fear in a moment.

Dancing with freedom and structure

The answer to the first fear is to balance freedom with a minimal amount of supporting structure. By balance, I don’t mean having some of each, in a dead, static kind of way.

I mean choosing whichever is right, in the moment, depending on circumstance. Choosing freedom when it helps, and structure when it helps. Here’s an example:

Most traditional businesses already have some key documents like mission statements, sets of values, roles and responsibilities, KPIs, employment contracts and so on. These rather old ideas can be very useful in a Conscious Business, but only if they are understood in a new way.

The difficulty is that typically the content of these documents has been handed down from on high. Developed by senior management and cascaded throughout the organisation. The content is often driven by ‘what the owners/shareholders want’.

Conscious businesses rely on the notion that shareholders’ needs, and those of all the other stakeholders – customers, suppliers, employees and the public – will all be met better if everyone works together without coercion. Willingly creating value for each other.

So if you wish to get the benefits of empowering people, and avoid chaos, you need to ‘flip’ all of these key documents, and encourage people to write them themselves, and as if they really belong to them. To write them for themselves, not for someone else.

Suddenly you have a supportive framework that can be genuinely useful to each individual, and which will also provide some structure to contain chaos.

Role descriptions as traditionally written limit people. Role descriptions written based on personal purpose, what people are good at doing, and what they love doing will remind and give motivation, especially when things get tough.

KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) have a bad name in many businesses. But again, if written by the real owner – the person who is going to fulfil them – then they will guide and remind people to be themselves, to be their best.

A personal development plan (PDP) becomes a dream, something someone really aspires to, for themselves, and those who are important to them. It will inspire and allow people to get feedback that will feed into development and growth. And, after all, in a knowledge economy, and indeed in life, development and growth is very important.

An employment contract will tell everyone what an individual is responsible for. This is an ‘opt-in’ – it is voluntary – and it allows everyone including the individual to assess and check progress: creating real accountability.

And is everyone aligned?

And how will alignment be achieved in this kind of environment? How do we ensure that everyone is heading in (broadly) the same direction?

Corporate purpose in a fully empowered organisation emerges from, and is built on, the individual purposes of everyone involved – all the stakeholders including employees. That shared purpose is something everyone can stand behind and work towards – creating alignment. And generally people perform much better when their personal purpose and needs are aligned with what the group is trying to achieve.

And if some people really don’t fit in or agree with the purpose that the rest rely on to motivate them, then they’re likely to vote with their feet.

That is a good thing, because coercion just doesn’t work.

Challenge, mastery and making a difference are amongst the most important motivators, as people like Dan Pink have ably communicated.

Not the need for lots of money. And certainly not being told what to do.

Few modern organisations spend much time telling their people what to do directly. It’s inappropriate outside of a very small number of situations, such as when the building is on fire, and life is at risk.

But many organisations subtly coerce their employees by taking advantage of their needs. The need for money, or status, or power. Or the very common need to do what others want us to do – because we fear displeasing them.

The problem is that coercion is never going to help people deliver their best. So we really don’t want people in our organisations if they are being coerced in any way. If they are there only for the money.

That’s why Zappos (and now Amazon) famously paid people to quit during its selection process. Founder Tony Hsieh, who eventually sold Zappos to Amazon for around $1bn in 2009, said they didn’t want people who are there only for a paycheck, and they didn’t want people who feel they are trapped.

And for those who struggle to give up power?

By putting in place this minimal amount of ‘structure’ – through these key documents (roles/responsibilities, KPIs, employee contracts etc) – an organisation will maximise its innovation, collaboration, and quality. It’ll gain the best people, working together in the best way.

With this approach other elements of traditional structure like hierarchy or network might still be useful, but they will mean much less. Titles, for example, become less statements of position and power (“Senior Executive Vice President Marketing” ) and more informational (“Partner, Public Relations Department”).

So, what about those managers who fear losing their power, or status, or control along with their fancy titles?

This is very hard. Many people currently running organisations gained their positions because of their ability to use power over other people: control. Their ability to coerce others to get things done. The ‘best’ are subtle, and may get away with it for a (long) while. The worst already have bad reputations and are known for how they behave.

We spend some of our time trying to help people in that situation see that, like King Canute, they will never stop a rising tide.

Especially for a younger generation full empowerment is essential. Companies that fail to understand this will never attract the best people, and therefore lose the best advantage they have.

Letting go of control is a difficult journey of personal development. We’d all rather be right than happy, and changing the habits of a lifetime is never easy. And letting go often means facing our inner demons directly.

But letting go in that way – and becoming a ‘post-conventional’ leader who helps others develop and grow and be the best they can, for themselves, their organisations, and the broader set of stakeholders – can also be extremely rewarding.

 

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Too big to fail?

A recent post in the Conscious Capitalism LinkedIn group made me think about what happens when a group – a company – gets too big.

Is this the end for consciousness? Can large companies sustain the consciousness that small groups can?

As a young man I worked for a Fortune 50 company called Digital Equipment. (No relation to the much smaller and less successful Digital Research – the company that produced the operating system CP/M).

This was a company which grew organically from a $70,000 investment in 1957 to a $14bn corporation employing some 120,000 people. Eventually it faltered and was sold to Compaq in 1997 – in what was at the time the largest merger ever in the computer industry.

As some of you will remember Compaq itself faltered and was acquired by HP in 2002.

But my story is about growth. And demise.

Following its meteoric rise over 40 years, the hard fact is that DEC was a large company that faltered and eventually disappeared.

You could put this down to all sorts of reasons. Unseen flaws in what was a highly collaborative, innovative but also caring culture? Failure to adapt to a changing marketplace? Even narcissism amongst the top team? We can speculate endlessly.

Or maybe it just got too big.

But there’s a letter from a friend and colleague of mine in Ed Schein’s book on DEC (DEC is Dead, Long Live DEC – The Lasting Legacy of Digital Equipment Corporation).

Schein was a consultant with DEC for many years, and it was seemingly where some of his enduring ideas about organisational culture – and process consulting – emerged.

My friend’s letter suggests that when a big corporation disappears we can talk of death. But we can also talk of new life.

He suggests we picture a sunflower. When the flower is ready, the hundreds of thousands of seeds – the employees – spread far and wide, born on the wind. They take with them the DNA of the organisation.

And indeed look around the world today and you will find many ex-DEC employees still following the values that attracted them to DEC -we could call them ‘power’ and ‘love’ – and bringing them into their working lives with new colleagues and new companies.

I like this story – obviously, because it is little self-flattering. It also helps me make sense of what happened, and the loss – of great culture, great dreams, great experiences and great friendships.

But I also think it is a story worth telling. Because it reminds me that at core organisations really are only people.

Yes, something special can happen when a group of people coalesce together in a special way – a new matrix is formed. I think groups and companies are really important. I also think that we are attracted to groups that share our values anyway – that is why we get together.

Companies – groups of people working together (literally, breaking bread together) – give us strength and collective power. And that is good if linked with generative purpose.

But we can also sustain our values individually, even if we move from one organisation to another. Our identity as individuals continues.

In many ways it is harder – being together is great. But I think being alone also contains strength and power.

And sometimes it seems to me to better than relying on any one organisation – however comforting it may be – for our sense of identity.

I’d be interested to hear what others think.

Is the “great group” the be all and end all of working consciously?

Or is there something to be said (heroism, for example) for being alone with one’s values?


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Financial Freedom?

I have just finished reading the Real Deal, the autobiography of British entrepreneur James Caan.

I don’t usually read that kind of thing, but I have to say I really enjoyed it. It is well written and interesting, and at one or two points really pulled on the heart strings. There are several mentions of his great ability to find the best people to do things for him, so I guess those are hints that he also found a good ghost-writer. But he comes across as a pretty nice guy, who has done some amazing charitable work.

One thing that is very clear is that he measures his success in financial terms: he has a really strong need for financial success. Given the way the book describes his life, it would even be pretty easy to argue that this arises from his childhood experience, his relationship with his father, and so on.

And, wow, has he worked hard to meet that need. He describes many, many years of working long hours, and with great dedication, to give it satisfaction. And, naturally, given that very dedication, he has succeeded.

Realising this, I suddenly felt very free. I realised that, personally, I don’t have that kind of need. Maybe a little, but to nothing like the extent that James does. I like to be comfortable, but just don’t need that exact type of success.

James seems to have been unable to avoid filling that need, and this has driven his behaviour, his life, and pretty much everything he says and believes about himself. And having met that initial need, he now seems to be on a journey to continue to convince the world of his great personal value, building a school for his father, doing more and more charitable work, and on, and on.

Nothing wrong with any of this. He doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone to get his needs met.

But this also got me thinking about my needs, and how they drive my behaviour. One of my needs, for example, is to understand, and another to be understood.

Thus, I have made a career out of learning stuff, helping others understand complex things, and helping them put that knowledge to good use.

Or, at least, I have been trying to do that. Because as well as being a need, this is also one of my challenges – especially the latter part: being understood. I seem usually to understand complex things fairly easily, but, boy, do I struggle trying to explain them to others – for all sorts of reasons.

What irony. Isn’t life just perfect? Perfect as a “test” I mean…

Our biggest needs and our biggest gifts and our biggest weaknesses all come crashing together into one. And life tests us and challenges us as we work through those issues.

But what of freedom? This need to understand and be understood has clearly driven my behaviour, pretty much all my life. So although I may be free from the need to be very financial successful, am I really any freer than James?

I would like to be, I think. But I guess the only way to gain that freedom is to realise the extent to which that need drives me. Then, a little, I can perhaps choose to let it go.

What about you? What are your needs? What are they exactly?

And how do they drive you?