Engagement Cannot be Carbon Copied

"Even with the consciousness that top-down, parenting management strategies will not win, many efforts to change will inevitably reenact the very same set of beliefs that created the need for change in the first place. Patriarchy will reinvent itself in living out the promise of its own demise," says Peter Block in Stewardship.

The choice to begin practicing stewardship must incorporate choice and local autonomy, he says, because otherwise, it is just a cosmetic change, not a true advocate for participation.

The organization featured in the following story makes an effort to redistribute power between supervisors, salespeople and support staff. The company did so by hiring interior designers to rework the office space and alter it to fit employee’s wants and needs; Meeting space, storage space and social quarters were revised. On the surface, it seemed as if the office space was simply being remodeled to adjust to changes in business, but at the core, the remodeled office space was a prime example of stewardship in action.

A short while after this individual office chose to shift things around and redistribute power, corporate stepped in and decided to implement this “concept” to all other branch offices. Corporate thought they could mass produce engagement, or as Peter says, “roll out the disease instead of the cure.”

In the full article below, you will read what Peter suggests human resource professionals do in situations like these; how to take control in a high-control environment and how to create meaningful partnerships in all types of organizations.

Peter Blocks Article:

European sales office of a large U.S. computer company decided to run their business on stewardship principles. When the sales and support people were to move into new offices, the decision was made to have the new space be designed by those who would be using it. Teams of salespeople, support people, and supervisors worked with interior designers and office suppliers to create an office that would balance their needs for workspace, meetings, privacy, social contact, community, and storage. They also selected the lighting, decor, colors, and textures they wanted for their environment.

The office designed by the teams supported the aim of creating community among the different functions and made a strong statement in support of partnership. It also functioned well and cost about 20 percent less than usual for that number of people in that location. Soon it was touted as the company’s office of the future. Up to this point, an encouraging but not-so-unusual story of innovation and empowerment in action.

The edge to the story comes when the regional management group stepped in, acting as if the innovation of value was the design of the office instead of the redistribution of power and privilege that it symbolized. They rightfully wanted to spread this success to other parts of the business. But the innovation that mattered to them was the office design itself, not the way it was created, so they instituted an office-redesign program across Europe. In effect they chose to roll out the disease instead of the cure. The disease is unneeded centralized control. The cure is high engagement.

They set corporate standards, requirements and timetables for the new office plans. They got compliance in some places, resistance in others, and the new offices rarely delivered the outcomes of the original site. In time, corporate headquarters in the United States promoted the office-redesign idea on the basis that it not only would save money but also would force salespeople out of the office and into the field. This met strong resistance and eventually fell of its own weight.
What had begun as an act to give people more control over their own jobs was twisted into a coercive strategy to standardize offices, save money, and exert more control over salespeople. Partnership was co-opted by patriarchy. Patriarchy won. The business lost.

The act of implementing stewardship principles through leadership based on consistency, control, and predictability is what keeps patriarchy from helping itself. Well-meaning people in power (all of us) repeatedly take ideas like empowerment and partnership and thwart them by the strategies we use to make changes. We make the false connection that if we want consistency and control in the quality of product or service we deliver to customers, we must have consistency and control in the way we govern the people creating the product or service. Human Resources is often the first to see that improvement efforts that produce no redistribution of power, purpose, or privilege will produce no real improvement. This is why HR must work with organizational leadership to understand how the methods of change we choose can undermine our intentions, making partnership and stewardship isolated occurrences instead of the foundation for reformed governance of our workplaces.

If these ideas resonate with you, or if you want learn more practical strategies on how to implement Peter’s ideas, consider attending one of our Flawless Consulting Workshops.

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