In violation of my long-standing "only watch TV" rule, I read an article recently about how Zappos is adopting a management structure known as holacracy.
I was hoping this structure somehow involved holograms, which would be awesome, but instead it’s a flat organizational structure in which, according to the website holacracy.org: “Everyone becomes a leader of their roles and a follower of others’, processing tensions with real authority and real responsibility, through dynamic governance and transparent operations.”
I’m not sure what that sentence means, but it certainly made me wish I were watching television and not reading about management structures. Still, curiosity got the better of me, and I began thinking about other management approaches, from branded concepts like Total Quality Management and General Electric’s six-sigma method to more traditional top-down arrangements.
And the question I kept coming back to is: Does any of this really matter if the people in management aren’t following my workplace golden rule, “Be a decent human being?” In other words, what’s more important, the management structure or the attitudes and behavior of the people doing the managing?
“I think the two are symbiotic, actually,” said Eleanor Bloxham, CEO of a consulting company called The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance.
“It all has to start at the top. But by not having a system that puts checks and balances on the CEO, you can create a monster. If you create a structure that sets out certain values and actually tries to practice them, you can actually change the way people behave in a good way.”
Tom Kuczmarski, president of Kuczmarski Innovation and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said companies have to have a system that reinforces values — authentic values that are defined by people from all levels of the company — and good behavior.
“That, to me, is the fundamental issue that drives cultural success, that drives overall organizational success,” he said. “Of course, what’s absolutely critical in all that is how leaders embrace those values and live by those norms. You’ve got companies like Google or Zappos, or Red Frog Events here in Chicago, who place such a high value on values and on the culture of the organization, and to a great extent that’s what perpetuates their continued success.”
To the “being a decent human being” element of all this, Kuczmarski cited a book he co-wrote, “Apples Are Square: Thinking Different About Leadership.” The book looks at the values of 25 different leaders and finds some of the key characteristics included: humility, collaboration, compassion, decisiveness based on values not on profitability, and the ability to connect with other people.
That all sounds rather decent to me, and Kuczmarski’s point is that leaders who sincerely embrace those ideals can then work with employees to build an authentic value system and, from there, a management structure that works.
“I think they’re always much better to try to develop their own system,” he said.
I’m sure many of us have worked somewhere and had a faddish new system implemented — whether it’s an overall management structure or just a means of handling performance reviews or some other aspect of work life. Those systems often feel like templates dropped down on an already dysfunctional system.
That’s what worries me about concepts like holacracy.
It’s easy for management to view a system as a quick fix to deeper problems, but I’d guess that more often than not it’s an ineffective Band-Aid.
“If it’s not authentic, you can say you’re doing some system or other, but you’re not really embracing it,” Bloxham said. “If it comes across as, ’We’re doing this so we can get more productivity out of you,’ it isn’t really going to work.”
She said that innovative, employee-focused management systems tend to get publicity, but the truth is that most companies are still using management systems that are anything but friendly to workers.
“I don’t think we see, in major corporations today, a true, genuine understanding of the importance of the human beings that work inside the organization,” Bloxham said. “People are overworked, overstressed; the environments tend to become more political, and it’s worse with layoffs. I think we’ve gone through almost two decades of sort of regression in terms of how folks are broadly treated. It becomes harder for some people to be more decent human beings.”
I would encourage managers to consider their own mindsets and behaviors before worrying about how to implement the next cool-sounding or superefficient management system.
Those systems — be they old school or new school — play an important role in any company. But a system is only as effective as the people at the helm. Take the time to make sure your values are decent, then let those values be the oil that keeps your system squeak-free.
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.