Dispatch from the Corporate Egalitarian Team Trenches

One of the key themes woven through my writing is our societal transition from hierarchical to more egalitarian institutions. I’m talking about the transition from leaders giving explicit marching orders to subordinates in an obvious “pecking order”, to something more akin to a “circle of equals”, where all members of the team are expected to make important decisions, and their managers play much more of a facilitative (how can I help you be successful) than directive role.

I have witnessed this sort of transition in family life (among the other families I interact with) and religious life (in the Unitarian-Universalist religious organizations I participate in). But what I have been most focused on lately is this transition in the work world, particularly my own place of work. I work as a business analyst for a large corporation in the insurance industry, not what you might think as the leading edge of social change. But I am pleased to report that in my team of some 20 people (and other internal teams that are our “customers”) the transition from “pecking order” to “circle of equals” is alive and well!

In my last piece reporting on my place of work (“Much More and Much Less than a Boss”), I shared that the director of our team had taken the unorthodox step of having me and his other team members evaluate him and how well he was doing his job leading our team and supporting all of us. The consensus of the group was to give him a very good evaluation in general, but to “ding” him in particular on taking on too much himself, and as a result, not always being available when we needed him. He took the criticism in stride but used it, as he always does, as an opportunity to make changes for the better.

Soon after that evaluation by his team, he put together and successfully presented to the leadership team (that he reports to) a proposal to hire two new team members who would function as sub-team managers. Once these two were up and running he would no longer have 16, but just 6 team members reporting directly to him. He hoped this would free up a good chunk of his time spent with all the bureaucratic logistics of having so many “direct reports”. When he shared with us at a team meeting that he had gotten the green light to proceed with the hires, I told him in the meeting that “hopefully they won’t all be white guys!” He grinned and nodded.

It took several months of soliciting resumes and interviewing (done by various members of the team and finally our director) to find just the right people who could be woven into the group without a lot of anxiety and drama. As it turns out they were both women, one coming from a different department in our company and the other from one of our competitors.

The two were brought on board last month, which began a lengthy process of all of their fellow team members trying to bring them up to speed on a fairly complex organization in the midst of a very challenging transitional time due to the changes in the health insurance industry wrought by last year’s federal health care reform legislation and the evolutionary changes in the industry that it is catalyzing. In the context of our team as more of a “circle of equals” than a “pecking order” the process of orienting them has been much more a sharing by peers than an accepting of a “new sheriff in town”.

I for one, as the team’s senior business analyst, decided to put together a “deck” (Powerpoint presentation) describing the business context our team operates in, including the geography of the regions we support, the other internal teams that we partner with, and the end to end sales process that our team supports. I was not instructed by my supervisor to build this presentation. I as a free agent within my team, tasked along with several others for pulling orientation materials together, conceived and created the overview presentation. I am expected to take initiative, and my fellow team members, including my manager and our team’s director now trust me to do so and value the unique skills and perspective I bring to the team’s work.

This is not to say that there are no marching orders from above or traditional directive leadership. Our team’s project managers, after some negotiation probably with our director, have the basic scope of their assignments set. Their focus is either one of our company’s regions, or a particular ongoing health care reform related project.

But getting back to the point of this piece, what I’m talking about here are real world examples, that I am witnessing and participating in, of a transition in the work world (at least my work world), from the traditional directive (orders from the boss) to a more egalitarian and facilitative (support from ones team and supervisors) form of leadership and governance. Our team operates to a large degree on the consensus and synergy of its collective wisdom rather than the singular wisdom of our supervisors calling all the shots.

That said, I do have to acknowledge that my team members are experienced and highly skilled “knowledge workers” that are treated as professionals and are operating from a certain position of privilege conveyed by our meritocratic society. Though in the small bakery/restaurant where my daughter is the manager two days a week, her work experience sounds similar, because though she is “in charge” she does very little ordering people around and works very hard to handle all the odds and ends so that her colleagues can focus on serving food to their customers. Again, it sounds more like a facilitative form of leadership.

I feel it is important to bear witness to this, so that people don’t get the idea that the world of business is a monolith of exploitation or “intellectual salt mines”. I believe that all our society’s institutions are in transition at least to some degree from the “pecking order” to a “circle of equals”. The progress may be spotty and impacting some venues more than others, but there is progress.

I prefer to view our society as “half full” in our perhaps slow (with three steps forward followed by two steps back) but inevitable transition from hierarchy to partnership. I believe that we are developing too much wisdom and agency among the people of the world to continue the “command and control” approach to leadership and governance that relies on the wisdom and intelligence of a few rather than leveraging the growing wisdom and intelligence of the many.

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