Thought experiment: elect your boss!

In the West we like to think that we live in a free country. Our personal liberty is guaranteed by constitutional rights and our government’s power is kept under control through democratic institutions and the rule of law. What a bliss it is to live in the West!

However, most people between the ages of say 25 and 65 spend the majority of their waking hours at work, which for most is a place where they’re subjected to a higher authority who they can’t control and whose power over them is limited to the degree that labour laws protect their interests. The governance structure of the workplace can be characterised as an autocracy, an aristocracy or an oligarchy, but rarely as a democracy. Does it really have to be so? How could a system be devised that takes workers’ evaluations of their bosses into account when assigning them to management positions?

Liberty leading the people (1830) – Eugène Delacroix
Contradiction? What contradiction?

I find it fascinating: the ease with which our minds can believe that we live in a free and open society and at the same time don’t consider this to be in contradiction with the fact that we spend the majority of our time living under the conditions of dictatorship.

Of course I am exaggerating for rhetorical effect. We enter into employment relations as free and equal citizens and the terms under which we do so usually comprise an exchange of ‘doing what you’re told’ for money. The intrinsic nature of the labour contract is that of subordination, so there is really nothing to be surprised about at all. And if we don’t like it, we can always walk away, (or can we not?).

But is all that our employer expects from us really just that; to merely do as we’re told? Perhaps it was a hundred years ago, but contemporary job ads often ask for things like ‘a pro-active mindset’, ‘a can-do mentality’, ‘being a team player’ and preferably ‘a track record of resilient delivery under challenging circumstances’. And I almost forgot my favourite requirement: ‘not a 9-5 attitude’, which oddly enough, considering that we’re exchanging our time for money, is seldom reciprocated with generous overtime payments.

In fact, our employer essentially expects us to put their interests first, to act as if we are part of a community with a common purpose. The expectations towards us, to act like a good member of the organisational community, is not that dissimilar from the expectations we have of people in general to act as good citizens in society at large.

Bees tend to their tasks in service of their queen and the bee colony at large without middle managers.
Image by Todd Huffman, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Managers are more equal

To have an employment relationship where one person has authority over the other seems only logical from the exchange of time for money, particularly if we imagine the person employing us to be the business owner themselves. If the company is a little bigger, the owner may appoint a specific class of employees called ‘managers’ to act in their place in accordance with the owner’s interests. Consequently, the owner devolves many of their instructional authority vis-à-vis the employees that resides with them, to a manager. Some managers so fervently adopt the role of surrogate-owner that they start to believe they actually are an owner and follow suit by appropriating company money to grant themselves special privileges as if they were dividend pay-outs, all the while merely being an employee, just one with authority over others.

Still from Animal Farm (1954 animated film) based on George Orwell’s 1945 novel by the same name.
Although the book is a parody on communism, the similarity between communist apparatchiks and some capitalist middle managers is striking.

The further removed the manager is from the owner’s ‘line-of-sight’, or; if ownership itself is distributed amongst so many individuals as is the case with publicly listed companies, or; if there is no natural, i.e. human owner in the first place as is the case with government institutions, then a sense of accountability to single identifiable individuals is lost. And the stronger the owner-impostor syndrome may become in certain managers. And the more the organisation’s hierarchy starts to look like that of a chimpanzee tribe where one’s position in the pecking order is established through conflict between ambitious (male) apes, regardless of the tribe’s common interests.

Fortunately, many, if not most managers live by the moral code of service to the organisation that they agreed to uphold when they entered the organisation and by which they hold their subordinates to account. However, I think that we all have first-hand experience with an awful boss or let’s call them ‘monkey managers’. And somehow many of them seem to be able to survive over longer periods of time, because they astutely play the political games that are so common (and inevitable?) in larger organisations.

The line purporting that ‘some animals are more equal than others’ has become a (in)famous.
Out of sight, out of mind

If there is no ‘personal’ relationship between an organisation’s owners and a manager, on what grounds are managers then granted owner-like authority over other people? The legal answer is of course that this is the result of a delegation of authority from more senior managers who do still have a direct relationship with the owner(s). But is it reasonable that authority is passed down the line unqualified if managers’ personal legal and financial liability for the organisation is watered down to a negligible extent? I contend that most managers have a position of power over people to a degree that is not commensurate with the personal accountability they have for the organisation’s results. They hardly ever have to pay from their own pockets for losses or damage caused or incurred by the organisation due to their own decisions. But they can make their subordinates’ life like hell. Why should this be reasonable?

I will cut to the chase. The point I want to make is this. Managers in large bureaucratic organisations don’t primarily serve an owner even though their tasks and targets may have been aligned to the owners’ interests (e.g. profit, cost or sales) and sometimes they may even have been awarded shares or stock options to inculcate ownership thinking. Rather, they serve their own interests, which is fine, we all do, or they serve their own manager’s interests: ‘what interests my boss, fascinates me’. Instead however, managers ought to serve the organisation at large, as these larger organisations don’t or no longer exclusively serve owners’ interests either. In that sense the organisation can be considered a community that is to promote the interests of all of its stakeholders, which includes the owners, but also its customers, money lenders, employees and society at large.

If we agree that justifying the authority of ‘silver backs’ in large organisations solely by delegation of authority by owners and senior managers does not really make sense, should it then not logically follow that employees, being the stakeholders who are most exposed to the consequences of their manager’s behaviour, have a say in who rules them? This is not to argue that employees should singlehandedly appoint their own superiors or decide on organisational strategic aims and policies, as this would ignore the justified interests of the other stakeholders. But could a system not be devised where both employees and the owners’ chain of command appoint junior managers up to say two levels removed from the owners (the level where arguably the owners will no longer be personally involved in the appointment process)?

‘Beeldenstorm 1566’ depiction by Jan Luyken (17th century).
During the Reformation period in Europe, with the iconoclasm of 1566 (‘beeldenstorm’) in The Netherlands, protestants stormed catholic churches to remove all icons, statues and symbols for devotion as they believed devotion should be focussed on God alone and not on man-made relics, other people (saints) or a clerical order. According to philosopher Charles Taylor the Reformation represents a shift in thinking that still manifests itself in the Western conception of citizenship today of which a central tenet is; an allegiance to the common good in society, instead of serving the interests of certain factions to uphold a particular and ‘unequal’ order in society. Is there not a similar dichotomy between serving an organisation’s aims and serving the hierarchy?
The empowered workforce

Imagine what it would look like, if employees had a say in appointing their managers? Take a moment to reflect on what it would mean to the (power) dynamics on the work floor.

Senior management might identify certain eligible ‘candidates’ for a management position, who’s appointment then needs to be supported by at least say 50%-67% of employees and they need to be ‘re-elected’ every year.

‘Censorship hat’ of the Dutch city of Groningen from 1685. Members of the city’s representative body would draw beans from this (covered) hat. The five men who would draw a black bean would be designated ‘censors’ who together would elect the city’s ‘managers’ for the next two years.

The risks associated with such a system could be that only those managers survive ‘election’ who ‘cosey-up’ to the staff and avoid taking tough or difficult decisions or who don’t hold individuals to account for underperformance. Or what if radical new ideas and approaches are required? Will employees embrace such change if they’re not forced from above?

On the other hand, not only will the primary command mechanism from top to bottom still stay in place allowing senior management to force through sweeping reforms. It may also promote staff engagement, as they may now feel more accountable for the organisation’s fate. Will staff prefer longer term organisational stability and success over short-term comfort? I believe most grown-ups do when it comes to their own livelihoods. We see the same in public society where the general public will support austerity measures or higher taxes if the situation calls for it. But perhaps best of all; if you’re a manager who is an ‘a—hole’, it won’t be long before you’re out.

I expect that employees will favour managers who are true leaders and not just conniving cannibals. Leaders who can articulate and campaign for a vision that doesn’t simply ‘dazzle with brilliance’ and PowerPoint dollars, but a vision that is rooted in and supported by the experience of those people closest to the front-line. It may force senior managers to really listen to the concerns further down the food chain. And it may also require them to share information that is instrumental to taking quality decisions more openly, engendering trust and strengthening a sense of community. It may lead to more debate when change is required, but when change is embraced it will also be carried by all required to carry out the change. Or when change in the form of staff cuts is inevitable, it is done in the most humane way possible. But the most important change I think would be that employees would be treated as equals and regarded with respect, because their managers would depend as much on them as they depend on their managers.

Until this idea is actually implemented we will never know its true merits. Which owners are brave enough to try?

What do you think? Could this work? Under which conditions? What other pros and cons do you see?

Brotherhood of Man (1968) by Anthony Stellon.
Employee-manager relationships don’t have to be antagonistic.

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