In a follow up to his article examining how our workplaces have been unwittingly designed to mass produce dictator-bosses, Chetan Dhruve provides some answers to the many questions that this idea throws up.
Using the ‘systems thinking’ theory, my previous article showed why we shouldn’t blame individual bosses for bad behaviour – the boss-subordinate relationship is a ‘system’ that makes bad behaviour by bosses almost inevitable. The apparently bizarre ‘cure’ is to have subordinates vote for their bosses. This idea provokes several questions, which I will answer here:
1. Won’t it lead to anarchy?
A ‘free system’ – in which freedom is an emergent property – does not equal anarchy. For example take a system with – and let-s take a really wild number here – about 300 million people. The leaders regularly get thrown out by their people; there are lots of sub-level leaders (who also get regularly thrown out); the leaders are forever squabbling with each other in public; their people are forever criticizing them in public; things happen by consensus; the top job is seemingly won by a popularity contest, and so on. But consider the name of this system – the United States – which also happens to be the world’s most powerful system.
We know that the apparent chaos of freedom disguises very real, tangible and formidable strengths. In comparison, dictatorship ‘fear systems’ are usually weak, uncompetitive and stale.
2. All this talk of freedom sounds very nice. But how do we implement this practically?
Remember that fundamentally, the vote is really an expression of power. In organisations, the boss’s power is typically expressed through the appraisal. This determines the subordinate’s pay, promotion prospects, standing in the organisation and, indeed, the very existence of the subordinate in that organisation (not to mention the ability to pay the mortgage, image in the community, self-confidence, and so on).
Through the appraisal, your boss already ‘votes’ for you – a satisfactory rating or higher is a vote for you to continue, and a rating of not-satisfactory means you’re voted out – dismissed.
Similarly, a boss should have management objectives (such as clearly communicating goals) in relation to the subordinate, and be appraised (with similar consequences) by the subordinate. Depending on the rating, the boss is either voted in or out, though ideally, this vote would be expressed as a real vote. This goes way beyond 360-degree feedback. For more approaches, you could read Ricardo Semler’s book, Maverick. It’s important to understand that whatever the approach, the aim is to counterbalance the boss’s power, such that freedom is an emergent property of the system.
3. Don’t we sometimes need a dictator?
This sounds reasonable, especially when a ‘firm hand’ is needed. But who will get to decide, and at what point, that a dictator is required? The dictator, of course. This can go terribly wrong. In 1986, space shuttle Challenger disintegrated soon after lift-off, killing everyone on board. It turned out that because of freezing weather, the engineers had recommended against launching. But their bosses took an autocratic decision and over-ruled them.
Moreover, when someone says, “a dictator is sometimes needed,” what’s left unsaid is, “and that dictator should be me, or a dictator I approve of”.
4. Won’t it turn into a popularity contest?
This is not really a question but a statement of arrogance that says, “I will vote for the right person, but I don’t trust others to do so”. It also means you think others are not intelligent enough to make the right choice. Consider that someone could think the same of you. Also remember that before women won the right to vote, they were denied this right partly because they were considered to be too emotional and irrational.
5. Won’t it be time-consuming and cumbersome to put every decision to vote?
This confuses consensual decision-making with the definition of leader. It’s not decisions that are being put to a vote. It’s the boss himself/herself.
6. Our people are already empowered. Why do they need the vote?
In this context, empowerment is different from freedom. Subordinates may be empowered to make decisions or do certain things. But why then, are they still afraid of the boss? Because the boss can throw them out anytime, and they don’t have that power over their boss.
7. Isn’t 360-degree feedback good enough?
How much does fear of the boss reduce because of 360-degree feedback? When you give feedback to a person whose position you cannot threaten, and on whom your position depends, it’s not a recipe for freedom. It’s a recipe for lying or, at best, sugarcoating the truth.
8. I already know my boss behaves badly. Why do I need a fancy theory?
Before the theory of gravity came along, people already knew that if you jumped off a roof, you were going to fall down and get hurt. But now that we have a theory of gravity, it helps us in achieving stupendous things – satellite TV, sending human beings to the moon, and so on. As the saying goes: “There’s nothing as practical as a good theory.”
9. I’m truly a nice boss, so obviously the system hasn’t influenced me. Doesn’t that disprove what you’re saying?
The difference in power between boss and subordinate results in a difference in perception. You may be a really nice boss, but to a subordinate, even a request for a simple favour can come across as an order. The system’s influence means that subordinates become subservient so that even if you’re nice, subordinates may not always see it that way. Subservience breeds resentment, and there’s no telling when and how this will manifest itself.
10. What about subordinates who behave badly with bosses?
This happens, but nowhere near as much as we imagine. In his best-selling book, The No Asshole Rule, Stanford professor Bob Sutton says, “‘upward nastiness’ – where underlings take on their superiors – occurs in less than 1 per cent of cases.”
Finally, if we’re having such a difficult time accepting freedom, imagine the problem dictators and subjects of countries face. Without any exposure to freedom, imagine how insane and fanciful the idea must appear to them.
HR Zone has three copies of Chetan Dhruve’s book, ‘Why your boss is programmed to be a dictator’ to give away. For your chance to win a copy, simply email <a href="mailto:[email protected]" [email protected] by 5pm on Friday 23 November. Please write “Chetan Dhruve book offer” in the subject heading and include your postal address. The first three people to be drawn will each win a copy. Good luck!