People create all kinds of organizations: religious, philanthropic, manufacturing, and even occult or subversive organizations. They all have one thing in common, they reflect the view that their founders had of the human race. It doesn’t matter whether the organization is profit-seeking or non-profit, what matters is how we view the nature of people as this will determine the degree to which we build into the organization systems of autonomy or systems of control.
I rode on a train once from Syracuse NY to Cedar Rapids, Iowa and, during that trip, enjoyed a great conversation with a hobo. I’m using the non-politically-correct word on purpose, because what we normally think of hobos is that they are lazy, irresponsible, and lacking in intelligence. I found this individual to be very intelligent and a meticulous planner. He even showed me a printed hobo’s handbook that had all the commercial train routes and times in the nation. My point here is that I had discovered an intriguing and even, to some extent, noble character in this hobo.
What I find in most people is a mixture of beast and nobility, of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The key to great organizational design is to find the right balance between empowering autonomy, which appeals to the noble side of humanity, with some level of controls for the dark side of human nature. If we don’t control that dark side, we may end up with an organization where open conflict and uncivilized discourse becomes the norm.
Companies in the U.S. have been experimenting with a deluge of multicultural ideas and philosophies. This is partly the result of living in a free society and partly the result of the advent of the Internet. My concern in all this is that we could follow blindly after the latest organizational fads without understanding the underlying ideas from which they flow. Just as the sunshine causes plants to grow and take form, so ideas nourish our forms. If the ideas are flawed, then the forms will eventually break down or develop in ways we never anticipated or wanted.
You might be saying to yourself right now: “What have I to do with creating organizations? I’m just an employee.” You may be thinking too small. You may some day create your own organization. At least you could unleash an idea that takes root and changes the organization where you are now. Ideas are powerful and viral; once released into the air, they cannot be called back.
No matter what level of influence you have in the development of organizations, whether you are the CEO or a mid-level administrator, you always have the option to plant ideas. Organizations are merely forms that people have created to accomplish a purpose more efficiently. These forms are reflections of our ideas, of the way we think. We create organizations in our own image and according to the image we have of others.
In the last ten years or so, we’ve seen a surge of management theories that emphasized empowerment, participative leadership, and flat or boundaryless organizational structures. The proliferation of technologies that enable front-line employees to have access to vital information has also contributed to employee empowerment. We have also witnessed the growth of a post-modern worldview that questions all systems that claim to perfectly represent truth, and this approach to truth in the workplace translates into questioning the authorities of the organization.
It appears to me that the pendulum may be swinging back toward a desire to control people. For example, a recent article by Myra White advocates that America adopt China’s tightly controlled democratic autocracy (which stretches my definition of democracy to the limit). We have seen increasing examples of Washington politicians longing for power to control media outlets like radio and heard frequent calls among academics for legislation to force companies to adhere to greenhouse gases legislation.*
I’m not denying the possibility that tighter controls may be needed in the workplace. What I am saying is that it would be a terrible tragedy to crush the noble side of human nature in an effort to force the will of some over the will of others. We need leaders who understand the delicate balance between autonomy and control and how both must be present and kept in continuous tension. Above all, we need to remember that ideas should dominate forms and not the other way around.