Thursday, July 6, 2017

Questioning pyramidal, top-down, hierarchical organizational structures...

Let’s shine some light on the darkness of “the military model” in its creeping into all corners of our way of life, not as a positive but as a decidedly negative force.

For starters, the military model is based on a fundamental definition of masculinity. Hard power, whether it comes in the form of missiles, bullets, or pyramidal hierarchy is still “hard power” too often without recourse to appeals. Generals on the battlefield, as surgeons in the Operating Room, operate within very narrow parameters, limits that do not permit either debate or the opportunity to question decisions made by the person in charge. Following whatever decisions are made, both in the strategy and tactical fields, only then is it entirely possible to assess the impact of those decisions, to learn from them and to develop protocols that might shed new light on “best practices”.

Another feature of hard power is that there are immediate consequences of its use. A bullet maims or kills; a missile explodes on target, off target or somewhere in between, with “collateral damage” always a real and pressing danger. Similarly, in the OR, a slipped scalpel can result in death, serious injury or perhaps permanent  damage. And, whether the person in charge is a man or woman, these strict and hard and fast parameters apply. And while there are normally some measures to qualify the decisions, prior to their implementation in such situations as strategic planning sessions, medical ‘rounds’ or tumor boards, there is nevertheless a seriously heightened degree of pressure on all participants in the execution of whatever decisions were taken.

Fire fights and operating rooms, often even emergency rooms have surrounding their “culture” and expectations a proscribed time frame, a limited number of options, a limited number of instruments that might be needed, (include in that list all of the sponges, drugs, sterilized instruments of various shapes and sizes, or all of the military personnel and arsenal, ground, air and possibly sea, to complete the mission). The safety, professional security and professional reputations of all actors rests on the performance of all of the actors, individually and collectively. And in order even to secure permission to participant, one willingly and openly surrenders all initiating autonomy to the “chief” or the officer in charge, without feeling emasculated.

It is, however, unique to those highly charged circumstances, that the pyramidal, top-down hierarchy applies. However, to transfer such a decision-making model to many, perhaps any, other situations is a gross misapplication of the model. We all know, both from our experience and from a mountain of social science research that optimum performance by workers, including all ranks in any organization occurs if and when decision-making processes are spread as widely as is feasible. And that means and includes a complete re-think of how our major organizations are structured, how they operate and how they make decisions. Business executives, especially, take the shortest route, through the smallest number of people, to arrive a decisions, obviously in the interest of “cost saving”. Middle management, over the last three or four decades, has been effectively gutted, as emergency surgery was ‘sold’ by mammoth consulting companies like Anderson, to cut costs and to effectively shift power to the few remaining at the top, leaving those at the bottom even more disenfranchised, alienated and out of the loop.

There is a “kind” of thinking that accompanies the top-down hierarchical structure, that reduces all complexities to basic simple facts, eliminating all ambiguities, uncertainties, ironies, a serious regard for the evidence that can be harvested from previous initiatives within the organization and from research that bears on the management, not only the marketing research, to which all companies have tragically become addicted. Eliminating all potential confusion also includes the shortening of the time-frames of most organizational decision, including how long it takes to make the decision, how long it takes to design and then to implement. After all, as the cliché goes, time is money, and the more we “waste” the more it costs…..and like Pavlov’s dogs, all leaders, at all levels, in contemporary organizations salivate at the chance of getting noticed through cost cutting steps they introduce. Often bonuses are intimately tied to such “progressive” recommendations.

Hardly progressive, except for the bean-counters, and those who subscribe to the mean-lean approach to “leading” human beings at work!

There is another aspect to the simplification, time efficiency dogma, that teaches and models a kind of political/social ideology that is reduced to a few slogans, without, again, the nuanced consideration of the impact of those bumper-sticker slogans. Gangs, and power-driven individuals, like Proud Boys, ultra-nationalists, racists, homophobes, and ISIS can adopt the model, and like instant microwaved popcorn, serve up a menu of violence, hatred and bigotry, without having thought through the implications of their actions…..because for them, ACTION is the only thing that gives them POWER.
There are so many applications of the “power” in a top-down, non-reflective, non-responsive, non-inclusive, and, if those engaged in such a process were willing to admit, their lives, their leadership and their ‘administrations’ are agents of epic self-sabotage.

Not only is the top-down, hierarchical, ACTION-DRIVEN, modus operandi short-sighted, dependent on short memory especially of its operative underlings, and also of its constituents, eager to reinforce its own vainglory, but it is built on quicksand of self-deception and the prospect of deceiving all with whom it comes in contact.

There are, however, many more circumstances in organizational leadership and management that neither require nor are adequately served by a pyramidal, top-down organizational structure. Circles, concensus, even awarding a veto to upper management individuals operating in circles, all of which flatten the power and authority, spread it around and integrate as many participants in the decision-making process as is both feasible and stretched a far as possible across organizational levels. Of course, there are examples of “teams” for some functions like product development, marketing, and “staff” functions. This piece purports to recommend a significant shift in the thinking that goes into the formal “line” functions, where authority is supposed to reside.

As far back as the mid-eighties, major organizations were using an “open-door” approach that permitted and even encouraged all workers to take any decision made by their supervisor one or two levels higher, without being considered defiant, or disloyal. And those managers all knew that their decisions could and would be challenged, appealed and potentially overturned. In order to begin really to transform how large organizations work, one of the primary shifts has to start with the concept of the human being, the worker, all of whom have much more to contribute than their specific skill set. They have experiences, insights, criticisms and observations about how power is, has and could operate. And those insights, even as “low” as the mail room, deserve a place of honour, respect and  serious consideration by those responsible for leadership. In fact, strong, self-possessed and confident leaders  would not merely welcome rotating positions of responsibility, but also a process that brings each person into a direct and meaningful and purposeful place in which s/he can and does know that whatever complaints, criticisms, recommendations and even “visions” they have are sought, welcomed in a deliberate process of consideration, including costing, comparisons with other options and serious challenges in order to sift the “wheat from the chaff”.

Of course, many will argue that such a process will be cumbersome, complicated, unwieldy and far too costly both in time and in human resources. And that is precisely the point: we have sacrificed the human component for far too long, in the short-term interests of cutting costs, and growing profits and dividends and BONUSES….We have sacrificed loyalty, diligence, integrity and authenticity on the altar of sheer greed and short-term power. And we are, and will for a very long time, pay a very high price, not only within such organizations but outside, where everyone knows that most if not all “corporate” decisions sacrifice the human component of the equation to the reputation and career advancement of the people at the top.

Even those organizations, like the military establishment and the ecclesial establishment that have been around for centuries, and have barely recognized and certainly not changed their structure nor the principles underlying that hierarchy, are engaged in an inevitable and persistent erosion of their power and influence. Justifying such an inordinate degree of power and influence at the top, in order to be better able to “police” their “charges” only serves to demonstrate that the model is based on the fear and insecurity of those in top posts.

The very fact that they pursued those top posts, along with other motivations, demonstrates their need to be in control, and their need to be dominant, to have status, and to have the perks that attend such positions. And unless they openly admit to themselves and to their closest colleagues and family that their “power needs” have to be constantly curbed, in respectful care and guidance, through authentic expressions of “truth to power”….something that the weakest among such leaders is almost incapable of doing, they risk crashing themselves and taking their organizations with them into the stone wall of reality.

It is the reality of contempt of ordinary people for the abuse of power that continues to offer the kind of human balance of power needed in all human organizations. And it is the courage of the ordinary people to refuse to obey unjust laws, and unjust commands, and unjust and abusive administrations, not matter how massive or how small, how large is the profit or dividend of the corporation, no matter which office or which office holder is abusing the power of that office that continues to offer hope to all people no matter how desperate their struggle.

Not a constitution, not a legal system, not a structure of balancing powers in laws, nor a library of laws..none of these, when compared with the power of the ordinary people acting in concert, in truth and in conviction against the abuse of power, can or will compare favourably with the power of ordinary people, It is the whistle-blowers, and the voiceless, the homeless, and the destitute, the outsiders and the alienated who, having lost all of their “pretense” and their “social status” and their “respectability” who are most likely to “tell it like it is” and consequently, it is those very people who are least listened to by those in power. In this space, I have written in advocacy of the “democracy of the indigents”. Here I take that point even further.

If and when those in power come to the conscious realization that they are, and have been for centuries, rejecting one of, if not the most, powerful of human resources, the voices of their outcasts, than and only then will democracy come to the place where it can authentically claim to be government “OF, FOR and BY” the people.


Until then, it will continue, in spite of the all the rhetoric and media coverage, to be more of a sham and a pretense to its full capacity, and will continue to incarnate a model of failed and failing integrity to all, especially the young. It is their energy, their optimism and their hope on which these changes depend, and not on the grab of power of the insidious opportunists who need other desperate and insecure people to keep them afloat.

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