Flat, Self-Managed and Fun: Are We Positioning Organizations For Mediocrity?

happyThis article was originally posted on LinkedIn on June 30, 2014

More is expected from the workplace than ever before. Companies are asked to develop foundational skills (compensate for the school systems). They are expected to be a place employees can find fulfillment and meaning (compensate for the home and the churches). They are expected to provide collaboration, harmony and happiness (no conflict or difficulties please; can’t we all be winners?) and all this should be done with no managers (authority is so twentieth century and giving orders is not acceptable). So the question is:
Are organizations changing for the better?

Consider three popular change themes.
I. Change the Authority: No Managers
Management is in disrepute and not necessary (much like your big toe!). “Don’t manage people, manage things” is the current mantra. If we eliminate all managers (leave the leaders, they are good), organizations and employees will be better off.

Goal of change: Create self-management, autonomy

Reason not to change: Management work is necessary. Planning, organizing, leading and evaluating are required in every successful endeavor. No matter who does the work, the work has to be done or an organization will end up in chaos. While minimizing the number of management positions is proper, there is a danger that the current hostility toward “management” will diminish the important contributions of the management function. Even more important is the issue of creating alignment of individual and group efforts.

Better option: When people complain about management, they usually are complaining about an autocratic style. People chaff if a person with authority lords that authority over them. An autocratic manager who issues orders, who communicates one way, and, who only provides negative feedback will not create winning teams. The solution, however, is not to remove all management but to make management work the way it was intended. Managers who simultaneously maximize a high concern for people with a high concern for productivity are worth their weight in gold. That is the type of manager that builds high achieving organizations.

II. Change the Structure: No Levels
Hierarchy is also in disrepute. Organizational levels are seen as barriers to individual freedom and autonomy. People envision an organization with no levels, no job titles and no bosses. Thus, the holacracy movement. The problems with holacracy are several:
1. In a holacracy there are rigid hierarchies, not of individuals, but of circles of employees.
2. In each circle there are roles and those roles include management.
3. The skills required for a holacracy to be successful are greater than in normal organizations.

Goal of change: Create self-management, autonomy

Reason not to change: Structures will not significantly change most organizations very much because “culture eats structure (not just strategy) for breakfast”.
1. Structure change is often done in the hope that moving boxes on a chart will change the organization. Many times structure only creates an illusion of change.
2. Before leaders select the best structure, there must be rational thought about what they want the structure change to accomplish. Jumping to a new structure (no matter how popular the concept) without having specific objectives in mind seldom works.
3. There is no perfect structure. All structures have inherent strengths and weaknesses. When a structure is changed, certain aspects may be improved but other structural weaknesses will be created. Those weaknesses must be managed (and the systems or skill to do so often are not in place).
4. A structure never solves behavioral or cultural problems.

Better option: Employees who long for the “no-boss” freedom of a holacracy will be dismayed when they find working in teams requires as much or more management; and, management is divided among multiple team members all of whom must plan, organize, lead and evaluate their efforts. An alternative is to develop and use collaboration skills within the current structure.

III. Change the Culture: No unsatisfying work
Wouldn’t organizations be much more effective and better places to work if everyone was happy? How could anyone argue with that truism? Plus, the happiness movement claims two major benefits:
1. If people are happy, companies will be much more productive.
“Recent research coming out of Warwick University has concluded that happiness levels can increase productivity by a staggering 12%. Increasing the team’s mental and emotional adaptability, no matter what the circumstances, will improve the bottom line.” (“Boost Profits with Happiness Management” by Martin Murphy)

2. If people are happy, companies will be more cooperative.

Consider this piece of research: Three-member teams on which 1 person was in a good mood are more than twice as likely to collectively solve a murder-mystery puzzle as teams on which all members were in neutral moods. Why? People in good moods are more likely to seek information from others and to share their own knowledge. So start a meeting with a funny story to put people in a good mood and you may get better exchange of information and better decision-making. (“Who’s bringing the donuts: The role of affective patterns in group decision-making”)
If one action improves an organization’s productivity by 12% and enhances decision-making, all leaders should adopt that technique
Goal of change: Enhance self-esteem, create contented, happy employees

Reason not to change: Frederick Herzberg provided sound insights into the two major aspects of motivation. The first facet he called motivators which create true job satisfaction (factors are directly related to the person’s work). The second facet is hygiene factors (factors in the workplace but peripheral to the work). These factors never motivate employees but, if not done well, will de-motivate them. Focusing on happiness activities is a hygiene factor which will never result in true work satisfaction.

Better Option: Making employees happy is an impossible task. Concentrate on true employee engagement around meaningful work. That is the recipe for satisfied employees.

It appears many organizations are neglecting the basics and chasing fads. If this is the case, are we settling for mediocrity rather than building the infrastructure and skills that will truly create high achieving organizations?

What are your thoughts?
• Are flatter, self-managed and fun work organizations the wave of the future?
• Are we better off making current approaches work or making major changes to the way we work?
• Are companies being asked to compensate for parts of society which are not effective? If so, what other changes will we see?


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