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What should we be cautious of as we pursue this kind of change?

Any scenario that makes more room for relationship carries more relationship risks: that is a given. So this question is more about those specific to the change work. The traps and temptations that arise when organisations begin to make this shift. Whilst these cautions are real, they are neither insurmountable nor sufficiently problematic to hold you back. Don’t use this list as a reason for not changing: the risk of inaction is far greater. Use this list to feel prepared and to understand that you are not alone if you face any of these.

The temptation to parent

There are two common characteristics of being a parent. The first is that one party operates from a position of superior experience and knowledge and must therefore lower themselves to help the other; there isn't an equal contribution occurring. The second is they take responsibility for the wellbeing of the other: their emotional, physical and spiritual selves. When we talk about creating more human organisations, we quickly assume the idea is to invest more in the second characteristic. That the first characteristic is an immovable reality, so if only we were nicer it would be ok: we would be more human. Whilst it is certainly true that we could be nicer to one another, this isn't the point. The point is not to be a better parent, but to be a partner. And this means confronting people with their responsibility for themselves, not doing it for them. If you want to use the parenting analogy, consider it more akin to the child being a fully grown adult who must find their own feet.

Also, this temptation to a better parent does not involve a shift in thinking. We already do it through Human Resources, where we have built a whole system whose function it is to develop, train, support and care for employees. We have done this partly because we have taken people's freedom, and in doing so their self-responsibility. But also, cynically, to make existing within high control environments more bearable by having a good cop to counteract the bad. Although, in reality, HR departments mostly serve the managers not the employees - you know this by who they answer to. Not to mention, functional and administrative.

Taking advantage

Even though a move away from top-down systems is accompanied by greater peer-to-peer accountability, it creates a sense of room for people to take advantage. This is one reason why it’s important to lay boundaries early on and make it clear that freedom doesn’t come for free; a price is paid, in the form of a promise or set of responsibilities. See: “If I give my employees more freedom, won’t they just take advantage?” You should be willing to allow some grace as people test it, get used to it and breath a sigh of release. But deal promptly with anything that appears more serious and don’t be more lenient towards Senior Leaders.

Abdicating engagement

The transition to more equality will tempt some people, particularly the cynics, to sit back and create an empty space where acts of citizenship should be. When people do this they affect the outcome for the worse; they are not impartial observers with a neutral impact. This withholding of self, perhaps in the hope they can say “I told you so”, is as disloyal as taking advantage.

The sense of entitlement

Ironically, a sense of entitlement grows the more we receive something we haven’t earned. We are not entitled to restitution for the loss and pain experienced within the status quo. The mindset that it was “done to us” is not only unhelpful but not entirely true. Somewhere we went along with it or empowered it. Taking advantage partly comes from this pain. We are not owed anything and, even if we were, those that came before would probably think something similar. Someone needs to break the cycle and it must be us: there is no one else to make that choice.

Inauthentic efforts to change

The movement to a freer workplace must be accompanied by a genuine shift in the governance system: it cannot simply be the occasional act of including people in strategic thinking. Doing so is (unintentionally) manipulative, inauthentic and likely to do long term damage to real progress. It will certainly stifle any attempts to replicate successful experiments.

The opportunities you provide for exploration must be backed up by power to act that rests with those discussing it. Not action at the entire discretion of those currently in power.

Balance the journey and the destination

You do not have to choose between the two. The status quo enables us to focus on one over the other. Both matter and both should be held in equal regard. Particularly given that the status quo has a strong preference for the destination and in fact, in reality, there is none. Life and work are a never-ending process of change.

Keeping it easy

The simplest things to change are the simplest things to discuss - generally, tangible considerations like who does what, who is in charge of what etc. This is certainly necessary but it mustn’t come at the complete expense of the more challenging work, namely our own personal transformation. The exploration of our own sense of worth, identity and purpose. That this work is harder should indicate its importance. This work gives the rest of the change the integrity it needs and the foundation that will make it sustainable.

One symptom of this is the speed and extent to which we rely on external expertise and/or the creation of specialist roles to help guide the change. Some of this might be necessary, but the more emphasis we place on it, the less we are asking of everyone else to wrestle with the questions. Which is only a repetition of the status quo’s centralisation of thinking.

Externalising the problem

We need to consider where we personally struggle with these changes and where we may be working against it, unintentionally or otherwise. We avoid this when we lay the problem elsewhere or talk about people not in the room. We are quick to explore all the people and problems that stand in the way of change. We look beyond the organisation’s boundaries to the army of regulators, lawyers and officials we see over the hill waiting to frustrate our endeavours. Yes, they have a job to do, but we forget they are just people too, most of whom want the same thing we seek. If we are to focus on something externally, it should be customers, opportunities and possibilities, not pessimism and obstacles.

Copying others

Case studies are not bad: they are great for inspiration and encouragement. But if we just replicate them, we learn nothing about our context, one another or ourselves. Copying others quickly morphs into benchmarking which, like case studies, certainly has its use. But it can also become functional and diminishing; being emotionally disengaged or the best of a bad bunch isn’t sufficient. It can inhibit the process of discovery and adventure we need to keep growing.

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  1. John Featherby

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