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Privatizing Authoritarianism

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Authoritarianism is on the rise.

No, this isn’t one of KJR’s occasional thinly disguised political rants. I’m talking about private-sector authoritarianism.

As you might recall if you’ve read Leading IT, you have five ways to make decisions:

  • Consensus: We all agree to it, even if we don’t all agree with it.
  • Consultation: Everyone with a stake in the decision shares their knowledge with the decision-maker and then trusts the decision-maker’s decision.
  • Authoritarianism: The decision-maker makes the decision and announces it.
  • Voting: There’s safety in numbers, so let’s just tally them. Nobody can blame the decision-maker for the wisdom of crowds.
  • Delegation: Turn the decision over to someone else and ask them to make it using one of the remaining four ways to make a decision. It’s the remaining four because delegated decisions shouldn’t be re-gifted.

These five decision styles aren’t a matter of preference, or shouldn’t be. They have very different characteristics. Consensus maximizes buy-in; authoritarianism is quick and cheap; consultation strikes a balance between the two. Done right, delegation puts decisions in the hands of those better-qualified to make them.

Voting has little to recommend it, other than providing a way out when no one person has the authority to make a decision that has to get made anyway.

A couple of decades ago, consensus decision-making became popular in executive circles, pulling consultation and delegation along with it. The theory was that more employees felt empowered … they felt more influence over decisions that affected them … and so would bring more energy and commitment to their work.

It wasn’t a bad theory as these things go. So far as I can tell, though, it’s falling out of favor. Authoritarian decision-making appears, based on my entirely subjective perception that’s the result of an at best accidentally non-random sample of What’s Going On Out There, to be increasingly popular. Consensus and consultative decision-making, in contrast, are more and more associated with group hand-holding coupled with Kumbaya and the singing thereof.

My sense is that this shift away from high-involvement techniques is due to one or another of these three factors: (1) impatience (let’s get on with it); (2) arrogance (I know the right answer so let’s get on with it); and (3) ego (I’m smarter than anyone else involved, so no one has anything important to tell me about the subject that I don’t already know. I know the right answer so let’s get on with it).

Meanwhile, delegation continues to be used but not really. I’m seeing an increase in de-delegation as a fraction of all delegated decisions, de-delegation meaning “I’m delegating this decision to you unless you don’t make the decision I would have made or don’t make it the way I would have made it.”

Delegation, that is, is becoming little more than authoritarianism in disguise.

Is this trend, assuming it is a trend and not just an example of KJR being guilty of plausible blame, really such a bad thing? After all, we all know business is speeding up and authoritarianism’s core value is speed.

True enough. And as OODA devotees will agree, faster decisions, all things being equal, speed up the whole loop, leading to more wins and demoralized competitors.

The problem is, not all things are equal. Slapdash information-gathering (observe) and a poor understanding of context (orient) — natural consequences of authoritarian decision-making — lead to uninformed and poorly thought-through decisions. There’s nothing in OODA theory suggests that, faced with a set of possible choices, any old decision will do.

OODA theory is about speeding up each step in the cycle without diminishing its quality, so you complete the loop with just-as-good information, an undiminished sense of place, decisions that are just as smart, and actions just as disciplined and competent.

And one more thing: OODA, and for that matter most of what’s been written about the importance of speeding things up, is silent on the subject of buy-in. In the interest of filling this gap:

What’s needed to achieve buy-in might very well slow down one or two early OODA iterations.

But failing to achieve buy-in in these early iterations can slow down the iterations that follow. After all, managers and employees whose primary motivational state is apathy are, when the time comes for action, less likely to bring the energy needed for getting the desired results quickly and efficiently.

The difference, it’s said, between ignorance and apathy is “I don’t know” and “I don’t care.”

The other difference is ownership: Authoritarians own the ignorance. Apathy is the logical employee response.

Comments (8)

  • Much that could be said on this. I recall a leadership model (Hersey-Blanchard?) that had quadrants, and the leadership style most effective with newbies was essentially authoritarianism. (“Tell ’em what to do, because that is all they know.”) Of course, the other three quadrants moved through less and less tell and more and more collaborate and eventually delegate.

    There is also an excellent, excellent video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqmdLcyES_Q) wherein a captain of a nuclear submarine spells out his leadership breakthrough, which essentially meant getting the people on the ship to think like little captains. (Watch it; I’m not doing it justice.) Which, of course, leads to effective delegation.

    What fascinates me in all this is the number of times that leaders take the wrong approach. They collaborate when they need to decide, and they do the “I know what’s best” when they obviously don’t.

    It’s like the old saw I learned in the college of education: “What’s the worst teaching style?” No, the answer isn’t lecture — the answer is “the one you always use.”

    The same goes for leadership and decision-making. There are actually multiple ways to do both, and the good leader knows when to use which.

  • At the risk of bringing politics into this, I would say our current national leadership’and the other leaders worldwide who are emulating the US, are validation of your observations about authoritarian decision making on the rise.

  • Authoritarianism may be popular because it’s the approach exhibited by Emperor Donald, thereby validating it as a suitable for executive leadership. The possibility that it’s based more on ignorance and arrogance than understanding is simply ignored. However, as postulated by Dunning and Kruger, the less you know, the more you think you know, and since I’m so smart, it’s just a waste of time to wait around for you dummies to figure it out. “Buy in,” who cares about that nonsense? I’m in charge and the rest of you can just do what I tell you to or “you’re fired!” Hey, that worked just fine until about 70 years ago. Let’s just go back to the “good old days” and forget all this touchy-feely nonsense promulgated by consultants.

  • While I never would have suspected, I think when the Swindler-in-Chief engineered taking the Oath of Office, with the active assistance of Russian operatives, it has had a subtle, but profound immobilizing and toxic effect on the people of our society, showing up, in part, in people’s diminished ability to act ways that make OODA work.

    It’s not about agreement or disagreement or political party or policy. When we our voice is taken away by means we see, but don’t understand, this becomes profoundly debilitating, which favors the dominance of authoritarian, and thus, dysfunctional decision making processes.

    It’s not often that the political affects the fabric of social interaction so profoundly, but as happened in the 1968 election and the Gene McCarthy supporters, when it does happen it is not ever reversed until it is acknowledged.

  • Good insight Bob – I’m seeing something similar occur and can’t put my finger on it. I see a lot more fake consultation or better called passive-aggressive decision making. Here is a crazy theory for you. As we see the boomers exit, a new group of leaders and emerging. In my own observation, many of those new leaders see leadership as power and with power comes the ability to decide things. That feeds itself and sadly some leaders see their value as decision makers. Part 2 of this is greater diversity in the workforce along with employees feeling more bold due to unemployment and frankly a new generation that isn’t like the boomers. Change has become more difficult so being an authoritarian is the easy way out. The diversity should be recognized as a good thing – there is so much that can be learned by listening.

  • imo, the reason voting doesn’t work is because of 1) secrecy and 2) failure to explain the goal (which eventually defaults to secrecy or apathy). If I don’t know what the operating margins are or what the risks are of diving into new markets, then my vote isn’t informed. (That’s often the same problem with delegation–lack of information). If I don’t know what the true goals of the company are (“do no evil” isn’t a goal nor is “world domination” but “getting a lot of hype and selling out as a dot com while shafting the peon employees” _is_ a goal but that isn’t often shared with the employees).

    Buy-in involves getting folks to talk about the same goal, and if 1) employees, 2)managers and 3) owners are all working to the same goal, that will work, but I think secrecy rears its ugly head here, too.

    Both authoritarianism and consultation is the person with all the info making the decision, hence its appeal. I believe speed is its secondary appeal. Holding all the info close to your vest is the primary appeal for two reasons. One is personal power within the organization but the other is a completely valid protection of trade secrets.

  • “The problem with standards is that you have to pick one.” More generally stated, the problem with decisions is that somebody has to make them, and before that (or at least concurrently) establish criteria for making them, which is its own set of decisions. This leads to the problem of informing the decisions about the criteria…

  • Getting back off the politics…

    I suppose there might be some industry somewhere where speed is absolutely essential and nothing else matters. As a rule, though, I’d rather things be a little slower and be right the first time. I don’t mean slow as in road construction delay slow (our local freeway has been under construction for over 9 years now with no end in sight), nor do I mean something has to be absolutely perfect. What I do mean is that a product must be suitable for release without expecting customers to be the beta testers. (By the way, does anyone anymore even remember that beta testing is still supposed to be structured?)

    One reason I posthumously admire President Truman was his collaborative leadership style. He’d meet with his cabinet and solicit everyone’s opinion, before making the final decision himself. He also made it clear that once he made the decision he expected everyone to support it. This worked because they knew he was taking all viewpoints into consideration; it wasn’t just for show that he asked for input. That’s the type of leader I try to be, although it doesn’t always work — it shows respect for the others but also demonstrates authority and responsibility (and one without the other is a disaster waiting to happen).

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