Experiences, explorations, and insights.

Common Mistakes in Self-Management: Informal Hierarchy

Power is complicated. It doesn’t just reside in the people with formal roles and titles. So eliminating formal power hierarchies doesn’t actually eliminate the other forms of hierarchies that can exclude, coerce, or dominate your organization.

You might get rid of the role of CEO, but then witness a small group of people build an alliance as subvert the activities of someone they view as a threat. Or you might invite everyone to participate in the projects they feel called to, but they watch as some folks do not join projects because the people currently in the project create an unwelcoming environment.

In many circumstances, these dynamics of power and exclusion will mirror the larger social trends in our societies. This can result in folks with privileges such as wealth, formal education, maleness, able-bodiedness, and whiteness etc. wielding unwarranted power in the organization. In other circumstances, the hierarchies might occur along other lines such as social like-ability, charisma, or access to information. More often than not, it will be a combination of the two.

There is an irony that formal hierarchy, while often sanctioning and normalizing expressions of identity-based exclusion in the name of meritocracy, does provide the service of making power structures more visible so that we can at least critique and advocate. When we remove these roles, the hierarchies can continue to express in more subtle ways that call for more subtle interventions. We can’t just say “screw the boss,” we have to get a keener insight into how power and exclusion actually work so that we can create new realities. Replacing formal hierarchy with self-management doesn’t fully transform dynamics of hierarchy and exclusion, it just creates more opportunities for the transformation of these dynamics. It takes more than a new org chart to make the transformation real.

The basic thing to keep in mind is that if you don’t plan for the power relationships that you want, you will unconsciously reproduce the power relationships of the culture you inherited. One article criticizing a struggling self-managing organization characterized the issue perfectly:

“There is actually a hidden layer of powerful management structure in the company,” […] which made it feel “a lot like high school”. [It became a] neo-feudal workplace culture of powerful barons who ruthlessly exercise their whims over temporary favourites, then turn on them during the next “head count reduction” exercise.”

This group tried to create an equal playing field, but people acted exactly the way their previous social environments trained them to. Those of us socialized in the United States (and elsewhere) are exposed to lots of pressure to use dominance, coercion, and competition as our pathways to material security and personal worth. In absence of structure that encourages us to act to the contrary, we will continue to play out these patterns.

People don’t show up to the self-management adventure as blank slates. We show up with the beliefs, assumptions, identities, behaviors, communication, bodies, and cultures that we inherited from our previous experience. This previous experience trained us to exist within the very systems we are now trying to transcend. It’s not surprising that we recreate feudal dynamics, the assumptions of feudalism are still deeply embedded in our culture. It’s not surprising we act according to the developmental level of adolescents, our education system is designed to make us effective workers, not mature, holistic, self-aware adults.

The solution is to design systems that transform existing exclusionary hierarchies. This isn’t the same as designing a system that has no hierarchy in theory. The system needs to be responsive to the cultural and social hierarchies that will naturally emerge. It needs to increase participants awareness of these personal and interpersonal dynamics and how we all are liable to reproduce them. It needs to intentionally and transparently distribute power in ways that account for these human tendencies. It needs to help us hold each other genuinely accountable to living in a new way with each other. This isn’t easy, we don’t have models for how to fully relate to each other as equals.

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