coercive power is the curse of the universe
This is stating the obvious, but it’s still worth stating - whatever ambitious vision a company has, and whatever obstacles might stand in the way of that vision, you are infinitely more likely to achieve that vision if you can create and nurture a thriving culture. You can have the greatest strategy in the world and still fail because:
A phrase that people mistakenly attribute to Peter Drucker, although he did say related things.
I think Ben Horowitz perfectly summed up what culture is in the title of his book “What You Do Is Who You Are” and we can further refine this with a relatively common definition which is:
Culture is the space between the behaviours an organisation tolerates and those it rewards and celebrates
For example, if someone on your team consistently acts like an ass and it’s tolerated, then that is the culture. This is true regardless of whether or not there’s a plaque in the foyer that says one of the company’s principles is ‘Respect’.
Similarly, if someone works on the weekend to fix an issue and it’s not recognised and rewarded, or there’s no celebration when a team cracks a gnarly problem, then that is the culture.
It’s not that we always have to behave perfectly at work. We are, after all, only human. It’s that you kill a culture when unhelpful behaviours don’t get called out as not who we are. In extreme cases, this has to be demonstrated by offenders leaving the business, regardless of how well-liked they might be by those in positions of power.
Equally, no one should be expected to work the weekend. We do, after all, have lives outside of work. It’s that it kills the culture when it appears to be expected, or even accepted.
If this is the visible way of operating, then it’s a license for other behaviours that are invisible. Let one person be a sexist bore, or expect staff to do long hours without recognition or reward, and fewer people will care about the work or the business. And nor should they. Care goes both ways.
Culture is a well-known and invaluable organisational asset. I have participated in numerous workshops on it. The most harmful anti-pattern I see, and sadly it is a popular one, is for an exec team to attempt to “define” the company culture. It’s always well-meant and well-intentioned, but it never works. In some cases, it can have the opposite effect to that intended.
When answering the question “what is our culture?” or “what culture would we like to have?” the default approach is to list “culture words” like Excellence and Integrity, place them in a word cloud, and pick a subset to represent the business. Before you know it you’re listing Strength, Honesty, Intelligence, and Trust and trying to make an acronym people can remember.
It’s natural to want to define a culture and somehow roll it out across the organisation. It’s just that you can’t do it top-down. Whilst one aspect of culture is the way leaders behave, most of it comes from the middle out. Decisions are made daily about what to tolerate, reward and celebrate by people at all levels. That’s the culture. Not what the exec team or HR put into a PowerPoint deck.
Your culture isn’t what you want it to be, or what you say it is. It’s how people act. That’s it.
I was listening to a talk by Charity Majors the other day. In it, she said that employees need to demand more than relentless toil and vote with their feet if they don’t get it. Ultimately if the company doesn’t change its behaviour (culture) you have to leave. As people leave, the company will either change or die. It’s a harsh truth, but she’s right.
Something very culturally interesting is happening in our new post-pandemic world. People are demanding change. Notably, working from home. We knew before covid that working from home was feasible for people in Product & Tech and during lockdown we proved it.
Initially it was strange but we quickly became proficient at it. And we loved lots of things about it. More recently, I am finding that Product & Tech people will admit they miss face-to-face contact. Workshops and social events are not the same on a screen. But people aren’t saying they want to go back to the office. They want the perfect blend of working at home when it suits them and meeting up when there’s a good reason (which can be anything from kicking off a project or enjoying the social company of co-workers).
Employers seem to struggle with this dynamic. Instead of listening, they create rules like “set days in the office.” It’s a fascinating study of behaviour, especially when the whole rationale for Product & Tech people wanting this freedom is that it makes them many times more productive. Obviously, some people might abuse such a system, but then it’s up to the company and its cultural standards as to whether it’s tolerated or not.
It should be perfectly possible to create an office policy that’s optional, social and meaningful.
While it’s tempting to frame this social view of culture from a modern, enlightened, tech-savvy perspective, it’s actually not new. A somewhat awkward fact for anyone struggling to create a motivating culture in 2023 is that Mary Parker Follett pretty much nailed all the answers a hundred years ago.
“Just about everything written today about leadership and organizations comes from Mary Parker Follett’s writings and lectures”1
Let’s look at some of her ideas
Power With, not Power Over
In 1925, the lively-sounding Bureau of Personnel Administration held its annual conference in New York. Mary Parker Follett presented a series of four papers entitled “Constructive Conflict,” “The Giving of Orders,” “Business as an Integrative Unity,” and “Power.”
As a quick aside, although she had written papers before, this conference was really Follett’s first public contribution to the discourse on management. She was already 56 years old. Given her incredible insights, it’s somewhat mind-boggling that she was recognised so late and then mostly ignored by mainstream writers until the 1990s. Some theorise that this is because her ideas didn’t really fit neatly into any one category of study. However, it’s difficult not to conclude that it was simply because she was a woman and men are assholes2.
In “Power” Follett explores the notion that nearly all power-seeking in life is for independent purposes, that is to say, it benefits a person or group independently of others. This is true for managers, trade unions, advertising, contract negotiations and even conversations with friends. She posits that if we wish to achieve things together (and her definition of management is the “art of getting things done through other people”) then we need to find ways to develop power with each other, not power over one another.
It is possible to develop the conception of power-with, a jointly developed power, a co-active, not a coercive power.
And she adds that this is possible via a “respect for facts, for scientific methods,” foreshadowing the fight against one manifestation of independent power - HiPPO Management - by roughly a hundred years.
To me, this perfectly sums up the difference between management and leadership. Some management is necessary due to the complexity of organisational structures, but it’s best minimised as a necessary evil. Great cultures move the focus to leadership.
One feature of high-performing teams I have noticed is that they argue. All the time. There are always many opinions and options on the table because the team has developed Psychological Safety to the extent that all members are comfortable saying what they think. More than that, they are so fully themselves when working together that they speak their minds and also take time to hear the views of naturally quiet members. Because there is at once a level of respect and a recognition that the team’s goal is superordinate to the team.
Follet called this conflict-resolution strategy integrated, in contrast to the alternative strategies of domination (someone decides using independent, non-co-active, power) and compromise (options are watered-down, power is ceded).
Unlike domination and compromise, integration is a creative process. Rather than resolving based on what-is, integration creates a what-could-be alternative. And her suggestion for how to do this comes straight from the agile playbook: experiment, reframe, restate, reimagine the problem until it encapsulates the opposing forces and the superordinate goal.
Here’s an example I have seen many times. In C-level management teams, it is critical that members can argue and debate issues respectfully. Equally those arguments should be in service of the same superordinate goal. Exec teams that don’t argue are in danger of quietly watching the company fall apart when things go wrong. Not arguing also doesn’t recognise the perfectly natural and healthy tensions that exist between leaders. Marketing & Tech will typically always be pushing to spend money to improve product quality and awareness, whereas Finance has to robustly question this spend for its return value. If that’s not a healthy debate I don’t know what is. Culturally, it should be a debate that’s continuous, respectful and integrated with the broader business goal.
The Finance Team may believe the goal is to sell the business, so investors can recoup their investment. Businesses for sale usually shun risk and tighten operational spending to show off how efficient they are.
That can seem in conflict with the goal of Product, Tech and Marketing, which is to grow the business. Growing businesses aren’t usually very efficient with operational costs and growth comes with a certain amount of risk.
This conflict could be damaging if not resolved. But using Follett’s approach, we can integrate these two views into one, higher-purpose, goal.
The superordinate goal here is to ‘make a business someone wants to buy’ - now we have alignment. There has to be growth because buyers want to invest in growing businesses. If you are too focused on your exit strategy you will be inadvertently killing your business unless you sell very quickly. The phrase “Good Companies Don’t Get Sold, They Get Bought” comes to mind here.
Equally you aren’t in a position to roll the dice on a risky new venture. And some operational costs can be trimmed accordingly. It sounds like compromise, but it’s not because all actions are in service to the unifying goal. There’s no conflict, only good debates about what makes a business one that someone would want to buy.
Ironically, one of those features will be that it has a great culture. I was at Virgin Mobile when we were bought by NTL Telewest (now known as Virgin Media) and I remember them saying that one of the main reasons for the acquisition was our culture.
Follett was opposed to sterile hierarchies in organisations, where those at the top issue orders, even positive ones, without direct contact between individuals, regardless of their position. She suggested instead people meet and talk (using constructive conflict) to determine the “law of the situation” before deciding what ‘orders’ need issuing.
This is exactly what is not happening in the War of Where We Work (2021-present).
Yes, surveys are emailed and employees are “consulted,” but people are not talking directly across the hierarchy. So conflict is being resolved by domination and/or compromise. No one is finding the integrated solution and so orders are issued and no side is happy.
Diversity as Evocation
In the conclusion to Creative Experience, Follet says “We are all rooted in that great unknown, in which are the infinite latents of humanity” and that we can only release this vast potential by interacting and reacting to each other. And by each other, she meant every last one of us.
Whatever our tendency to want to simplify our lives to predictable safe uniformity, it is in our diversity that the secret to great cultural power exists.
Sadly this is one area in which we have made no progress. Not really. There is so much corporate tokenism on diversity and inclusion that I think it’s holding genuine progress back.
If we agree (and we should because it’s not exactly a debatable point) that diverse teams generate exactly the kind of tension and conflicting views we need to make teams better at everything, then the only steps are practical ones. There is nothing wrong with days set aside to celebrate diversity in all its forms, but if afterwards you go back to a team that’s anything but diverse, or you are led by an equally homogenous exec team, then you do not have the power to evoke “the energies of the human spirit.”
We have to admit that, just like power-with rather than power-over, the push for genuine diversity is not an instinctive goal for those in positions of power. Yet fear of difference will undermine everything if we let it.
What people often mean by getting rid of conflict is getting rid of diversity, and it is of the utmost importance that these should not be considered the same. We may wish to abolish conflict but we cannot get rid of diversity. We must face life as it is and understand that diversity is its most essential feature. I know a man whose fear of difference is so great that he looks alarmed if the most friendly argument appears at his dinner table; he always changes the subject immediately. But fear of difference is dread of life itself. It is possible to conceive conflict as not necessarily a wasteful outbreak of incompatibilities, but a normal process by which socially valuable differences register themselves for the enrichment of all concerned. One of the greatest values of controversy is its revealing nature.
We don’t need new tools to achieve this. No book, process, or management theory contains the answers. They are in the way we talk to each other, the way we hire, and fire, the way we recognise and celebrate our wins (and reward worked weekends), the way we stick to our principles, even over our agreed processes, the way we value each other’s lives outside of work, as well as within. As Marcel Proust said:
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
The painting is called The Last Hours of Pompei by Michael Sowa who is one of my favourite artists. If you can find a copy of “Sowa’s Ark: Enchanted Bestiary” for sale, it’s well worth a look. Prints of his work can be found on Etsy
The subtitle is a Mary Parker Follett quote from Creative Experience. The full quote is:
Genuine power can only be grown, it will slip from every arbitrary hand that grasps it; for genuine power is not coercive control, but co-active control. Coercive power is the curse of the universe; co-active power, the enrichment and advancement of every human soul.
Quote from Warren Bennis in Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of Management Pauline Graham (Harvard Business School Press, 1995), p. 178 ↩
In Mary Parker Follett: Lost and Found – Again, and Again, and Again Mary Ann Feldheim puts it more appropriately “Follett’s gender may be considered an issue because her ideas were culturally ‘feminine’ based on a caring approach that did not sit well with the masculine management world.” ↩