This hack considers how organisational capability might be unleashed by increasing the level of trust between employer and employee, borrowing from some of the concepts of Tikanga Maori and simply doing the right things and working for the benefit of future generations.
In the 1980s I relocated to the East Coast of New Zealand where the population were mostly Maori (indigenous peoples). I quickly realised the culture was foreign to me. When the radios crackled with notification that the Kahawai (sea trout) were “running” off the coast, employees dropped tools and went fishing, they gathered during work time for collective, but extended feasts of the local delectable’s, they were expert at “ghosting”, simply fading into the shadows and engaging in activities other than productive work. None of this behaviour seemed of any great concern to them, being laughed off in their characteristically Maori way. The overtures of a skinny white boy boss were certainly not to be taken seriously. For this was the home of the proud and resourceful Ngati Poro, Whakatohea and Tohoe people. However their behaviours are work were not replicated within their own whanau (family group) which were run by a different set of rules, “Tikanga Maori”.
With some rudimentary observations of tikanga, I decided it was time to change the way I engaged with these people as employees.
In an ocean of agency theory based management perspectives, the collapse of the 1980s created concern that organisational control mechanisms were possibly a contributory factor, at lease an inhibitor of recovery. The management norms and values of those regulated days where employees were not to be trusted and the values were more likely to be based on discipline and duty, not the supposedly enlightened values subsequently espoused. The creation of strong organisational values based culture it was postulated became the means organisations would find success. But nothing has changed, the agency theory is alive and well, the means of rendering the employee impotent may have changed, but not the desire. Another recession, and again time to analysis, but the continued downsizing, restructuring, rebalancing has only heightened the misalignment of our “leaders” words and deeds impacting directly on the trust and credibility held by our employees, impacting ultimately on performance. As a result, a number of organisations, including my own, had reached the point where employees feel their interests were constantly under the threat of harm, managers responding to this spiralling dysfunction with further redundancies or the imposition of even greater layers of control.
If this is the situation, is it time for us to learn from tikanga Maori.
I have recently been given cause to think about what is important in life, and believe more than ever our holistic business outcomes could do worse than to adopt elements of tikanga Maori, specifically the building of trusting relationships within the context of the wider community values.
Tikanga Maroi is a set of beliefs, practices and procedures to be followed when conducting the affairs of a individual or group linking the hapu (sub tribe), whanau (family group) with the whakapapa (genealogy) to manage their affairs in a way that is less about the here and now more about future generations. Tikanga Maori offers a unique framework of ideas and beliefs that help provide order to right and wrong, where the vision and values are not being owned by any one individual or group, but by the entire grouping. This commitment is constructed not by community power or opportunism but by the application of a higher form of human affection (mana tangata) and mutual respect for all generations, past, present and future.
After years of managing employee relationships rather poorly, I understood it takes time and real effort to develop trust, but one foolish lapse can result in that trust being immediately dissipated. Further, our employees saw organisational controls as simply a manifestation of management’s mistrust of them, this they tended to replicate. The whanau / iwi (groups) trusted their people, even when such trust required enormous leaps of faith, yet, long term this seemed to contribute to the development of group cohesion and commitment.
While I wanted to remove the controls, and trust my employees I had a crippling fear of not knowing whether the trust would be reciprocated. None the less, I realised no matter what level of surveillance or control might be applied, our employees would always be cunning enough to develop equally but more subtle forms of unintended resistance or response. Therefore I had to take the first leap of faith, and even though there could be no guarantee of reciprocation of benefits, I had to believe the longer term gains would outweigh the risks.
The foundations of trust I concluded would involve engagement in open and honest consultation and the taking of a transparently real and holistic interest in the welfare of the employees when making decisions that affected their material, intellectual or spiritual wellbeing. While some authors promote the need for a cultural leader, this concept was redundant given tikanga Maori was already the incumbent organisational culture, all that was required of me was to ensure the existence of greater power and knowledge equality, with absolute alignment between word and deed. Reflective trust and loyalty from this warrior race for their leader(s) was absolute, so to the consequences if tikanaga was ever ‘compromised”
The implementation phase involved a number of elements, too numerous to recount here, but involved a wide range of community engagements, to the point the delineation between community and workplace became blurred. The outcome of the implementation was the complete dismantling of the previous systems and structures.
The biggest influence in the creation of trust and performance came from allowing the functional work crews to determine when and how they would deliver their agreed works programmes. Gone was the need to be at work between specific hours, for certain days of the week. At a time when my employer was being chastised by government control agencies for non-performance and the need to impose greater discipline and management controls, many of those that existed were dismantled (guaranteed to upset the black suited agency theorist from the big city). The work crews were required to report on progress otherwise they had near complete control as to where and when they worked. It was acceptable to take an hour for morning tea, or to go fishing for the afternoon. But work programmes were being completed in as much as a third of the time previously thought possible, and the crew "chiefs" really took on a much greater level of responsibility and ownership than ever before. Completing the work programme was now a matter of competitive pride. We were keen for employees to retain the performance benefits, and not have them consumed by the desire to make greater profits or improvements. Consistent with the principles of tikanga, this enabled the employees more quality time to engage with whanau (families and community) and care for the next generation. From the employer perspective, even though we were typically paying the employees higher wages than previously (typically employees were earning 10% more per week, but worked less, this upset the unions), the works programme was being delivered with greater efficiency and at total less cost. Sharing the gain was a win, win, win situation.
While it is easy to over simplify and trivialise the events on the East Coast some 25 years ago, the experiment convinced me that there are better ways to achieve organisational outcomes than to simply adopt the economist’s model of the rational, selfish human. Tikanga Maori is one such way, and simply promotes focusing on people and doing the right thing.
As the followers of tikanga would say, “Focusing on people ultimately leads to enhanced productivity – the bottom line is taken care of as an adjunct”