Friday, June 22, 2012

Who Gets to Decide?

by Miki Kashtan

When my nephew Yannai was very young, he confidently walked up to a parent who was giving strong instructions to another little one. “But he gets to decide, right?” he said, completely confident that all other households were run in the same way that his was. It never occurred to him at that time that the overwhelming majority of children in the world grow up constantly being told what to do or not do.

An Executive Director of a non-profit with a large staff presented herself to me as “the one that says ‘no’ to everyone,” accepting that others would not like her because of that. She didn’t conceive of her role as the one making things possible for everyone. I didn’t see any evidence in our conversation that she could envision a collaborative relationship with the staff, where they decide together what makes sense and is doable within the budget.

During an in-service for teachers in a school, I asked the teachers to name the needs that their students were bringing with them to school and which they saw themselves as wanting to attend to. They named learning, safety, care, even meaning. The one glaring omission was the need for autonomy or choice. Teachers in this middle school did not see their students as having this need, or didn’t see it as part of their job as teachers  to support this need. I don’t know which it was. What I do know is that when I brought up this point, talked about how huge children’s need for autonomy is, and made some suggestion about having students be involved in decisions that affect them, one of the teachers responded with great vehemence. What she said has stayed with me for the last nine years. “Oh, no,” she started. “What you are talking about is democracy in the classroom. My classroom is not a democracy. I am the dictator. I am a benevolent dictator, but I am the dictator.” There was no shred of doubt in my mind that this particular teacher was deeply committed to and cared about the well-being of the students in her classroom. 

One day I walked into a room to have a mediation with two high level executives. As soon as I was in the room, it became apparent that they had been told by the CEO to schedule this meeting with me and had no idea about its purpose. They themselves had long resolved the issue that the mediation was supposed to be about. They shrugged their shoulders when we all found out what had happened. When I invited them to ask the CEO about this, to give her the feedback, to tell her why it didn’t work for them, they were incredulous. Why would they want to do that? It wasn’t so important, they both agreed, and, besides, she is the boss, and she gets to decide. It was their job to do what the boss wants. While I hear this comment at all levels in the organizations I serve, I was particularly surprised to hear it at the top level of an organization, from people who are in positions of primary leadership. Even there, they do not feel comfortable standing up to their boss. 

I have written earlier about the essential importance of being able to hear “no” in the workplace, especially for people with power. As I wrote in that piece, I learned from a CEO I have worked with that having power for him meant he rarely heard “no.” I take the possibility of hearing “no” as an indispensable part of creating a collaborative culture. Indeed, I believe that any person in a leadership position who wants to increase collaboration would benefit immensely from consciously encouraging people to say “no”, so that they can experience a sense of power with the leader instead of only following orders.
Last week I canceled a class I had scheduled called “Hearing and Saying ‘no’ in the Workplace” because only 3 people had signed up. Almost to the one, the people in positions of leadership I have worked with, speak of collaboration and yet are committed to the fundamental principle that they get to decide. The practice and goal of collaborative leadership is rarely embraced. I have had no difficulty over the years in getting leaders to recognize, in the abstract, that getting people to do things because the leader has power, not because the person understands the purpose of what’s being asked and is on board with it, backfires. This understanding notwithstanding, almost all the leaders I have worked with expect, either explicitly or implicitly, that they have final decision making power, and that the people that report to them are expected to go along with their decisions. 

As I am writing this piece, however, I am discouraged and perplexed. If the people at the top are ultimately reluctant to collaborate with the people with less power, and those with less power, even at the highest levels within an organization, are reluctant to speak up, to challenge their bosses, or to speak up in a group for what matters to them in the face of disagreement, how will the day ever come when enough of us operate collaboratively in the service of practical, material needs such as producing goods or services that all of us depend on?


  1. Excellent article for questioning our cultural paradigm of hierarchy. Personally I would rather live with the governance of a truly benevolent dictator than with a corrupt plutocracy that masquerades as a democracy. I found the following article inspiring, and it remains pinned up in my office since 1997. It was published in the SF Chronicle.


    Ken Lewis, managing director of Dutton Engineering in Bedfordshire, England, says he hasn't had to make decisions for two years; he leaves them to his 28 workers. They determine hours, salaries, when to take a long weekend; mostly, they work a four-day week. And if someone needs time to pick up the kids, no problem.

    This sheet-metal company has no management as such, just teams of workers. But sales per employee are twice the national average, paperwork is down 70 percent, lead times have been cut from six weeks to eight hours, product reject rate is less than 1 percent, and the company has gone out of the red and into the black. The workers average $27,000 a year in salary and share 20 percent of the profit each month -- a healthy incentive.

    According to the London Independent, Lewis picked up his management strategy, or nonmanagement strategy, in Japan. He says it's just common sense. Quality of life for workers has gone up because ``we work smart, not hard.'' He told his story to 120 business leaders at a recent ``competitiveness summit'' in London organized by the Board of Trade. Perhaps they listened.

  2. I know it's possible to collaborate because I have lived it. I worked in a public middle school where the administration was willing to share power, did so with me (a teacher), and I shared power with students in our classroom and also in detention process. Initially we used NVC and later, added Restorative Practices ( I found sharing power, rather than wielding it, to be easier in the long run, and also more fun. Empathy alone isn't enough; shared responsibility is crucial. If only a few are ultimately held accountable, they won't want to risk it, and I understand that. Restorative Practice really gets at that responsibility piece. So, those with structural power need to know they are not left holding the bag, that they have a voice and support, too. So, it's a systemic thing. One other crucial thing: We initiated this among ourselves at our school. People brought in from the outside as "experts" are not sharing responsibility and power in the same way as those who are a day to day part of the community and will likely be met with indifference or even antagonism, and especially if these well meaning folks are brought in to "fix" people. I know that there are those (myself included) who see the world as one community - an interdependent web. But there are those who do not, and that's a reality we may as well face. Even as a benevolent "outsider", I need to do a lot of real listening before anyone will want to hear my ideas. BTW, I also lived this at home with our little family of three, with the same orientation and process, starting when our son was 11 or so. MUCH easier because the system is smaller and I had lots of structural power ;-) Thanks for raising this issue, MIki.

  3. Hm', reading your last paragraph I am confused. Your last sentence is THAT long, that I think I am missing your point. OK, I am reading something about your frustration and some vehemency about people should change. I am reading your point about why you see it beneficial that a change occur, I read your ideas.

    Your example about the mediation between two persons who were not willing to express the NO to their boss: I read about the outside excuses of 'Why not?', but what are their *needs* to not stand up, to raise their voice? Is it cause they don't want to spend energy into something they perceive as senseless? Or is that they do not like a discussion with her, cause they cannot handle her arguments well? Or is there the fear, that mediation will be canceled forever although they see it beneficial?

    I personally have real problems with articles like them when instead of *right* and *wrong* a world of flower-power is created: You have a gun, either you put a flower in it, or I blow your brain away.

    Sorry, but I am missing the open, wide-minded approach to that difficulty. Or is it just an expression of your own frustration that you wanna have THAT much a change? (and forgetting about the side-effects)

    A crispy NO ;) LeO

  4. I find this post very interesting. I am particularly interested in what you write about students' needs for autonomy. You also mention a teacher who said "I am a benevolent dictator". I find one thing missing from this post. Miki, since you yourself are a teacher, I would love to read comments on how you perceive your own role in your own classes. In what ways do you experience your classes as collaborative? Do you ever experience yourself acting as a "benevolent dictator"?

    I ask these questions because you write in your last paragraph about being discouraged and perplexed about the difficulties of truly having collaboration in our organizations. I'm guessing that a closer examination of the needs involved and a closer examination of our own difficulties in similar situations might lend some insight into this confusion.