Why Bosses are Programmed to be Dictators: Looking at an Old Problem (Bad Bosses) with New Eyes (Systems Thinking)
If the answer is yes, the question then is, why do you want this right? The answer is simple: on some level you fear your boss, and you want voting rights to take away that fear.
We know this at a gut level of course, but a field of study called Systems Thinking shows us clearly what's happening. Systems Thinking has its origins in the works of the late Austrian biologist, Ludwig Von Bertalanffy. Systems Thinking is the opposite of reductionist or analytical thinking, which is usually the preferred method for examining problems.
More than redefining the work of leadership, this hack is a radical innovation that redefines leadership itself. The conventional view of leadership puts the individual leader (akin to a hero) at the centre of leadership. In contrast, this hack shows that leadership is actually a 'system' (defined in the solution section).
Following on from this, Systems Thinking shows us how all bosses are dictators prone to dictatorial behavior. Attempts at changing individual boss behavior (eg through 'leadership training') are doomed to fail, because the same system always produces the same results. When a 'leadership-trained' boss gets back to the office, s/he is back at work in the same system, which automatically produces the same old behaviors.
To fundamentally change boss behavior, we need to change the system so that boss behavior automatically changes.
Once the problem of bad bosses is viewed differently, radically new solutions present themselves.
The word 'boss' is typically glamorised as 'leader' these days. But despite the vast amount of material on management and leadership, bad bosses continue to exist, cutting across organizational and cultural boundaries. All of us have worked under a bad boss at some stage of our careers.
Bad bosses cause many problems. The health and morale of employees is affected, dissent is suppressed, people are afraid to "Tell the truth to power", the company itself is affected when good people leave, and so on.
Fundamentally, the problem is that of fear. All organizations are infected with this fear, in one way or another.
Empowerment is one method that's often tried - but 'empowerment' assumes that the boss empowers the subordinate. It's like a lord bestowing a gift on a serf - subordinates often gratefully praise their bosses by saying, "I have a good boss, s/he really empowers me!" In short, empowerment is not an automatic right. Moreover, empowerment is different from true freedom - a freedom that's an automatic consequence of how the organization functions.
All that said, there's a far bigger problem: and that bigger problem is we're looking at the problem with the 'wrong' set of eyes - analysis or reductionism. When we analyse, we usually end up targeting an individual (boss or subordinate) - and then we try to 'fix' this individual through interventions such as training. These individual-focused solutions rarely work in a sustainable manner. This hack will show why, and what needs to be done.
The solution has two parts:
1: The first and most important part lies in looking at the problem with a completely new pair of eyes.
2. The second part (solution) becomes obvious (though not easy) once we understand the nature of the problem.
PART 1: LOOKING AT THE PROBLEM WITH NEW EYES
Conventional approaches to boss behavior focus on the individual boss - ie, all the efforts are made towards improving or 'repairing' boss performance in relation to managing subordinates. Similarly, efforts are made at turning subordinates into good 'team players', or helping subordinates deal with bad bosses (organizations don't do this, but many books do).
However, neither bosses nor subordinates function in isolation. The boss-subordinate relationship forms a context for their behaviors. To truly understand these behaviors, we must use a field of study that examines relationships and interactions - and that field of study is Systems Thinking, pioneered by the late Austrian biologist, Ludwig von Bertalanffy.
Under Systems Thinking, a system is defined as an entity that owes its existence to the mutual interaction of its constituent parts. Without the interactions, the entity cannot exist. Further, the properties of the system may not be found in the properties of its constituent parts - these properties are "Emergent Properties", as they emerge from the interactions of the constituent parts. For example, water is made of two interacting gases, hydrogen and oxygen. Water cannot exist without the interaction of hydrogen and oxygen. Further, water is a liquid - an emergent property that is not found in oxygen or hydrogen.
Since human relationships depend on the interactions between human beings, every human relationship is a system. Similarly, the boss-subordinate relationship is also a system. What kind of system is this?
To answer this question, we need to define the word 'leader'. Typically, organizations today label bosses as 'leaders' - group leader, team leader, project leader and so on. But in the context of leading people, who is a leader?
The only objective definition is this one: a leader is someone elected by those s/he seeks to lead. All other definitions talk of abilities, skills or attributes - the ability to motivate, inspire, craft visions, set goals, and so on. This is similar to the definition of 'husband' - just because a man is a good provider, loving and kind, that doesn't make him a husband. To be called 'husband', he needs to be married - the objective definition of 'husband' is, "a man who is married."
Now, since leadership is a relationship between an elected leader and those s/he leads, leadership is a system.
Conversely, a dictator is an unelected person with power over those s/he leads. Hence, all bosses are dictators by definition. The relationship between the boss and subordinate is thus a dictatorship system.
As we know, the 'emergent property' for subjects in a dictatorship system is fear. This fear is an automatic result of the system - nobody needs to tell the subjects that because they don't have right to vote, they should fe fearful. For the dictator, the emergent property is the abuse of power.
Similarly, subordinates fear their bosses - perhaps not openly, but this fear manifests itself in several ways - not speaking up, feeling anxious and so on. The emergent property for the boss is a sense of power and the abuse of it.
It's important to note that these properties are emergent - the individual bosses or subordinates may not be intrinsically dictatorial or fearful outside the context of the boss-subordinate relationship; the system produces those behaviors. A boss WILL manifest dictatorial (but not necessarily nasty) behavior at some point in the boss-subordinate relationship, while a subordinate WILL manifest subject (submissive) behavior.
Hence, viewed through the lens of Systems Thinking, the reason for boss behavior becomes immediately obvious. Bosses behave the way they do because the system effectively programs them to automatically behave as dictators.
PART 2: THE SOLUTION
To get bosses to behave as real leaders, subordinates must have the right to vote for their bosses. We know that freedom is the emergent property in systems under which people have the right to vote for their leaders. Hence, the emergent property at the workplace will be real freedom and real leadership behavior from leaders.
Giving voting rights to subordinates may sound bizarre, but we must understand that voting is fundamentally an expression of power. Currently, bosses express their power over their subordinates primarily through an appraisal (on which the subordinates' pay, promotion, health insurance, job security and so on depend). A good rating is effectively a 'vote' by the boss for the subordinate to continue, while a bad rating means the subordinate is fired, ie voted out. Similarly, subordinates should be given the right to appraise their boss - the bosses' salary, promotion prospects and so on must also depend on this rating. (ie, this goes way beyond 360 degree feedback). Ideally, subordinates should also be allowed to underline this rating with a formal vote.
All that said, Systems Thinking warns that there are no perfect or 'final' solutions. All we can do is try something, see what works, and make adjustments. It's absolutely critical to understand that what we're doing here is to change the very foundation of traditional top-down "scientific management" - so there will be problems of course. But we should ask the question: Do we want to live with the problems of fear (as is currently the case), or do we want to live with the problems of freedom (the proposed new system)?
The impact will be huge:
1. There will be real freedom; subordinates will no longer be fearful of bosses.
2. Leaders will be real leaders, and will have legitimacy in the eyes of their subordinates. If they do not function as real leaders, they can be voted out.
3. Dissent will be openly expressed.
4.There will be no need for recourse to whistleblower legislation.
5. The culture of organizations will be truly open
6. Because of real freedom, organizations will become more competitive, innovative and successful (ie they will be real complex adaptive systems).
7. It will be very easy to identify the best leaders - those who get consitently voted in.
8. Employees' health will improve.
9. Leaders will be more accountable, but subordinates will also become more accountable as they cannot blame their bosses for everything.
10. Best of all, the above impacts will be an AUTOMATIC result of the new system.
The first step is to educate top management in the concepts of Systems Thinking, as applied to leadership. Without this there will be no buy-in and no progress.
A possible next step is to involve HR in creating an appraisal process under which subordinates appraise their bosses - the bosses' pay, promotion and so on should depend on this rating. (ie, this is a full-on appraisal, not just 360 degree feedback). The important point here is that freedom emerges from a power balance between boss and subordinate.
This will of course be an ongoing process as problems are identified and dealt with.There also needs to be a system of checks and balances, which all free systems have.
The works of Ludwig Von Bertalanffy
Peter Senge (The Fifth Discipline)
Late prof Russ Ackoff