Of Managers and Kings

In Andrei Codrescu’s novel Wakefield (Algonquin Books, 2004), the title character travels the country as a de-motivational speaker. Companies hire him to depress employees so they will do as they are told and stop disrupting the company with incessant innovation.

Many entrepreneurs and executives don’t need an outside consultant to demoralize their coworkers and customers – their monarchist style of management keeps people in their supposed place.

Generations of managers have been taught that order is the purpose of management, and many believe tyranny is the path to order. Right horse, wrong race. We can manage projects, we can manage systems, and we can manage the environment of our organization, but we cannot manage people. We manage things; we lead people.

Seeking order, CEOs and Entrepreneurs build fiefdom-based organizations based on hierarchical power and fealty. This serves middle managers – dukes and viscounts, if you will – nicely, but leaves most workers in the position of serfs rather than citizens. We turn what should be collaborative enterprises into a caricature of class struggle.

I’m assuming – perhaps in error – that at least some of you think of coworker engagement, creativity and initiative as desireable. Are these traits common in your organization?

People with initiative thrive as citizens, not surfs. How do you manage an environment to attract motivated people? The last 200 years of world history suggests “democracy” as the obvious answer.

Thomas Jefferson said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”  I know some readers are thinking, “Well, there’s your problem,” but let’s not be facetious. Knowledge really is power, so if we want powerful coworkers, we know what to feed them.

In interviews for E Pluribus Kinko’s: A Story of Business, Democracy, and Freaky Smart People (BookSurge, 2009), former coworkers told me time and again that access to the store Profit & Loss statement empowered everyone in the store to help solve problems. According to Docucentre founder Kraig Schexnayder, “At my new company, we share all of our P&L information with the group. It is exciting to hear conversations built around core costs, focusing on goals, etc. These were the very same conversations I used to hear in my more profitable Kinko’s branches.”

How much financial information do you share? How frankly do you express your personal and professional goals to coworkers? Transparency enables alignment of interests. It allows prospective coworkers who share your values to find you. If you want to attract and keep self-motivated people, keep them well informed about the organization’s values and aspirations.

It’s good to be the king, but democracy is good for everybody. And those who have tried it know that it is very good for business, too.

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