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Posted by Peter Block.
Peter Block is an author, consultant and citizen of Cincinnati, Ohio. His work is about empowerment, stewardship, chosen accountability, and the reconciliation of community.
This is excerpted from Chapter Two of Stewardship, 2nd Edition.
Most of our organizations are geared to solve problems and make the most of opportunities through strategies of control and consistency. Primary responsibility for these strategies lies with top management. Vision, direction, and leadership are expected to come from the top. If these are lacking, those at the top are held responsible. This approach to governance is best characterized by the concept of patriarchy. In its softer forms patriarchy behaves like a parent. In its harsher clothing, we call it names like “autocrat.”
Patriarchy is not about leadership style; it is a belief system first and foremost, which to some extent we all share. Its fundamental belief is that in order to organize effort toward a common goal, which is what organizations are all about, people from top to bottom need to give much of their attention to maintaining control, consistency, and predictability.
Control means that there is a clear line of authority. Decisions about policy, strategy, and implementation are the domain and prerogative of the leader. People at the middle and the bottom exist to execute and implement. In the context of patriarchy, the definition of service for those in charge is to provide clear goals, well-defined jobs and responsibilities, and mechanisms to make sure all are headed in the right direction. The definition of service for the worker is to commit to this direction and to be accountable to those above. Not too complicated, we live it every day.
Consistency means that we need a common way of managing ourselves across the organization. Key policies and practices in areas such as compensation, budgeting, approval authority, information systems, and levels of responsibility of certain managerial jobs need to be similar, whatever your specific function might be.
The primary task of the staff functions of finance, information technology, legal, human resources, and other centralized specialist groups is to maintain control and consistency across functions. The staff people lead in the creation of policy, they seek the approval of those at the top, and they audit to ensure that the policies and strategies are being correctly implemented.
Patriarchy is also fueled by its need for predictability. If you cannot define outcomes in advance and cannot measure the outcomes, you cannot proceed. The belief is that things that cannot be measured cannot be controlled, and they are therefore unmanageable. Some even feel that if something cannot be measured, it does not exist. (So much for love.) Patriarchy feels about surprises much the same as nature feels about a vacuum.
The risk in relying too heavily on predictability is that basic purpose gets displaced. Strong emphasis on predicting outcomes drives our attention to things that can be measured. This in itself doesn’t need to be a problem … we need to know outcomes. A heavy hand, however, leads people to give more attention to the measurement than to the service or product or outcome. We see it in schools when we care more about grades than we do about learning. An extreme example is the teacher who personally upgrades student achievement test results to improve the school’s scorecard. The moment we decide that scoring is everything, we lose sight of the game, and learn to manipulate the score.
We have seen the love of consistency and control dominate our reform strategies in education with high-stakes testing. Every child in the state takes the same standardized test. Those test results then become the measure of school performance and the winners and losers are published. This is considered good school management.
On the surface, patriarchal strategies like these may appear to be a common sense and logical approach to governance––top leaders in control and responsible for strategy, policy, and rule-making, with staff groups assuring consistent implementation, all in pursuit of predictable, measurable results. From another angle, though, it is possible to see how patriarchy’s demands for control, consistency, and predictability become its own obstacle.
Distributing Ownership and Responsibility
One unwitting outcome of our belief in control, consistency, and predictability is that ownership and responsibility for solving the challenges of innovation and adaptation, customer satisfaction, and employee commitment are localized primarily at the center and at the top of the system. The practical application of the principles of stewardship hinges on this point. Do you need a strong sense of ownership and responsibility from people doing the core work of the organization? Is this essential to the survival of your group or unit? If the answer is no, then just get better at the way you govern now. If you need ownership and responsibility from core workers, patriarchy cannot get you there.
Does your organization work hard to create a sense or ownership and responsibility among employees? Do you ever feel that patriarchal values get in the way? Share your story with us in the comments. And to learn more about the Stewardship philosophy of organizational culture, check out the book below.