Jerry walked into the restaurant with a dejected look on his face. I knew something was amiss, so I asked, “What’s going on?” He then posed a thought-provoking question:
“When collaboration ends, does dictatorship ensue?”
I had never juxtaposed the concepts of shared work and authority structures in this particular fashion before, so I paused to think a moment, but we didn’t dwell on the issue long. We were meeting that day to discuss other issues. My initial thoughts were that there might indeed be a link between the two, and I promised to think about it further. This article fleshes out my thinking on the end of collaboration and the rise of dictatorship.
People in entrepreneurial and creative organizations tend to engage in a fair amount of collaboration. Their mindset of risk taking, trying new things, and creating new approaches encourages sharing of ideas and resources. They help one another—they collaborate. This is what I have observed in my work with Jerry’s organization over several years. So his question was both diagnostic (reflecting what he has seen) and predictive (anticipating what might come).
What is collaboration? My personal definition is “the cooperative and integrative efforts of two or more individuals toward a common goal or mission.” This is consistent with the definition offered by the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor.”
What is dictatorship? I define it as “final authority and power held by a single person” and Merriam-Webster defines a dictator as “one holding complete autocratic control; one ruling absolutely and often oppressively.”
Let’s get back to Jerry’s question: “When collaboration ends, does dictatorship ensue?” As is often the case, I think the correct answer is, “It depends.” Here, I think it depends on a variety of factors, including:
- Where has collaboration ended in the organization? Why?
- Are some people still collaborating? Why?
- Is the organizational culture and leadership healthy?
- Did collaboration end and dictatorship follow—or did dictatorship rise and collaboration end? (Which came first?)
What’s perplexing about this question is that in organizations where collaboration truly thrives, it doesn’t just end thus creating a void that is filled by dictatorship. Organizations that have vibrant collaboration tend to be healthy and they have healthy leadership. Jerry’s organization has exhibited a high degree of collaboration at the lower and middle levels. However, this is slowly changing because their leaders are not healthy. The emergence of dictatorial elements in an organization suggests dysfunction at the higher levels of leadership. What has happened in Jerry’s organization is that unhealthy leadership has facilitated the rise of dictatorial styles and the result is a decrease in collaboration at middle and lower levels.
The initial clues to unhealthy leadership were difficult to detect originally. Hindsight is very clear, but not very powerful or helpful. In Jerry’s case, the clues included lack of follow through by senior leaders on commitments to strategic initiatives, lip service to organizational values, and transfer of authority and power from lower to senior levels of management. It is that last element, transfer of authority and power, that was the real wake-up call.
The following are some of the values that encourage collaboration and discourage dictatorship in an organization:
- Open communication
- Grace and forgiveness
When these values are present in an organization, collaboration is more likely to exist. Collaboration facilitates a stronger organizational culture and a more effective organization overall. When these values are not present, I can’t say that dictatorial elements are necessarily to follow, but it sure seems likely.
What are the actual (not aspired) values of your organization and are they conducive to collaboration? Do they discourage dictators?
Going forward, I’m going to help Jerry deal with the new realities of his organization. The concept of subculture is going to be more important to him and to like-minded mid-level managers. Because the organization is geographically dispersed, he has the luxury of being able to establish a healthy subculture to some degree, despite unhealthy culture at higher levels.
I’d like to hear from readers about how they handle developing a subculture in situations like this. Can you engage in some collaboration with Jerry? Post a comment below or drop me a note.
Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.