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From patriarchy to partnership

The paradigm shift our organisations need

It’s no secret that the way we’re working isn’t working – Gallup’s latest poll tells us only 15% of employees worldwide are engaged at work; productivity is down; people are burning out at work; technology continues to disrupt the norms. But whether I’m working with large, hierarchical organisations or small, flat startups, I hear the same two complaints.

From leaders, managers and founders: “No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to get my team to take initiative or be truly responsible for their work!” And from everyone else: “If only my manager/the leadership team/the founder would butt out and let us come up with our own solutions, we’d be so much more effective!”

Paradigm blindness

Incredibly, this is still the prevailing paradigm in workplaces today. We might have upgraded it a little, but not much. (Just read this mind blowing article by Aeon about the ‘stupidity paradox’ in organisations.) But what about companies that invest heavily in employee engagement programmes and making their people happy? Often this is just a different shade of being a parent — either a caring parent, or a coercive parent! The underlying belief is still: “people need to be motivated and taken care of to be productive.”

“We already know how to be good parents at work. The alternative, partnership, is something we are just learning about. Our difficulty with creating partnership is that parenting — and its stronger cousin, patriarchy — is so deeply ingrained in our muscle memory and armature that we don’t even realise we are doing it.”

Peter Block, “Stewardship”

How do we move to an adult-adult paradigm then?

Examples of different structures

  • ROWE (Results Only Work Environments) — an HR or leadership strategy whereby employees are paid based on results (output), and not hours worked e.g. Best Buy, Netflix, Virgin
  • Your own working time — made famous by Google with their 20% time (now defunct), the idea is to carve out time when employees can work on anything they want e.g. Atlassian’s 20% time or Innovation Week
  • Beyond Budgeting — a movement started in the 90s that moves away from centralised, top-down budgeting towards a more values-driven and responsive approach e.g. Handelsbanken, Statoil
  • Agile — developed first in the software world, this iterative development approach pushes authority down to the people doing the work and partners with customers e.g. Spotify (see also Jurgen Appelo’s Management 3.0)
  • Lean — a concept developed by Toyota, with principles like minimising waste and empowering frontline employees, that has now spread beyond manufacturing (see Eric Ries’ book ‘The Lean Startup’)
  • Holacracy and Sociocracy — two fairly complex self-management systems that have designed alternative structures for doing work, holding meetings, making decisions and so on e.g. Zappos

But are different structures enough?

“In all of these struggles, it is being human that creates the problem. We have not yet learned how to be together. Western culture, even as it continues to influence people everywhere, has not prepared us to work together in this new world of relationships.”

– Margaret Wheatley, “Leadership and the New Science”

Part of the paradigm shift from parent-child to adult-adult is to learn new ways of being together and relating to each other. Two examples of research projects at Google point to this as well. The first is Project Oxygen, which in 2011 revealed that the number one trait of the most effective managers at Google was ‘Be a good coach.’ (Number two, by the way, was ‘Empower, don’t micromanage.’)

The second research project, Project Aristotle, looked at Google’s most effective teams and discovered that psychological safety was the key. Leading the research, Amy C. Edmondson wrote about how we can create the optimum ‘learning zone’ when there is a culture of psychological safety AND accountability.

In other words, being adult-adult doesn’t mean we get to do what we want or that there is a leadership vacuum. It means we are truly in a partnership, accountable to each other. The most effective teams at Google, Amy found, were able to talk openly about mistakes, give each other candid feedback, and be radically honest with each other.

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Source: Adapted from Amy C. Edmondson’s “Teaming”

Doing and being

This was originally published as a guest post on which you can read here.

Written by

Founder of Reimaginaire, trainer and coach with Tuff Leadership Training, host of Leadermorphosis podcast.

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