We're All Equal... Except When We're At Work

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For some reason we persist in believing in power over other people. Even those of us who fight for social justice, for an end to discrimination that puts white men above all other social classes, even we settle into hierarchies for work and accept the ladder of importance. 

We aspire to be CEO, we would happily accept the title and all the authority that comes with it; we kid ourselves that we’ll do it differently, we justify to ourselves because we head a non-profit, because we are collaborative, because we care; we lift over ourselves the cloak of humble leadership and share our power, at the same time we accept the responsibility of our title. 

I reckon this is how I’d do it too, in my dreams, if I were ever in the position to be a CEO. But I’m not made for the ladder, only the top and so I will never get there. 

But when I say I’m only made for the top, I don’t mean I want power over anyone else, but I want autonomy, I want power over myself. My best fantasy is being in a brilliant team, where I am valued and accepted, where I work with others and can bring my best self, where my creativity and inventiveness for story and process is valued and complements the skills of others in the team. Where no-one has more formal power than anyone else, and where covert power is noticed and made visible.

The trouble with hierarchical organisations is that no matter how humble and servant we are in our leadership, we are still in power, we still have the responsibility. Alternatively, no matter how collaborative and amazing our manager is, she is still the manager, the boss; underneath all the shared power rhetoric is the structure of hierarchy. 

But it turns out my dream of a being in an amazing self managed team is not just a fantasy but a reality in some organisations, where the structure is radically different from how we ‘normally’ do things in hierarchy. 

It also turns out that I am not some aberrant, stubbornly independent renegade, just human; apparently humans are actually made for autonomy. As fully functioning adults we want and live autonomous lives, choosing who we live with and where, where and what we eat, what we do for leisure and where we work. It is only when we step over the threshold into the workplace that we are reduced to permission seeking servants, power wielding overlords or both.

What I have dreamt of is the self-managed team in an evolving, purposeful and deliberately developmental organisation. 

Like so many things my vision is actually simple in concept and not at all easy in practice. It is hard because it is different and it is hard because it involves fully facing and exploring the nuance and messiness of human relationships. 

While there are many brave and committed people and organisations on the path to self management and being deliberately developmental, there are many more that are overwhelmed by the task, who need time, or who can only chip away, one practice, one experiment, one change at a time. 

And this is where I see story as having a critical role, because story is the great leveller. Story allows us to show our whole selves, story brings to light the way we shape perception and make meaning. Story allows us to be authentic, express emotion and builds connection and trust. Story engenders listening and community. 

Every person’s story is valid and worthy, whether you’re a leader or a frontline worker. 

I know I have a strong bias towards story, and I haven’t proven my thesis yet, but I don’t think you can go wrong by beginning any transformation process with story-sharing; it sets a baseline of connection, care, humanity, listening and trust, it embeds a process for open hearted communication so when things get hard, or messy there is a place to listen and to speak. If this is the only practice an organisation develops, it will have a huge impact.

If you want to talk more about building a deliberately storytelling organisation, get in touch.