Beware of a leader's sudden desire to delegate power


By Jonathan Lewis

Delegation is good, let go and more will happen. Employees thrive, creativity and initiative emerge in new ways, and morale instantly improves. And then sometimes it doesn't. 

Sometimes it just feels weird, like the power isn't really with the people - it's just hidden somewhere and we can't see it. Is it 'really' OK to take decisions now or will I feel that on some level I'm not supposed to do it?

We're social creatures, and as such we have a pretty good instinct for the dynamics of power. We do, however, often lack the words and tools to express accurately what's really going on.

Inspired to delegate

I've seen leaders feel inspired by a book on alternative organisational structures, hand it out to their staff and state that "we're self-organising now". 

Sometimes, what follows is then simply disruptive and a bit odd. The leader handing out the books seems to be less interested in the deep work that the book implies and instead falls into a pattern of avoiding making decisions. Suddenly everyone is empowered and the leader is no longer "required" to tackle the messy people bit. It's like they've decided that "everyone is empowered, so I can avoid the bits I found too awkward before". 

Self-knowledge and progressive structures

Progressive governance structures require more engagement with complexity, not less. The benefits only emerge if power is openly discussed, not driven underground. Just handing over books is very far from enough.

My judgement is that on some level self-organising is attracting some leaders for the wrong reasons. Their motive is to let go of the challenges of working with humans, freeing them up to do the things they like. Perhaps this is something that emerges several years into the process, however before that arrives the journey is a torrid one. It involves deep exploration of a leader's worldview, their relationship to self, others, and power. It involves genuinely exploring their deepest intentions about running an organisation. If that desire is to make themselves embarrassingly wealthy, it's better to own that and avoid pretending there's genuinely a broader purpose. 

To run a self-organised group of people, there needs to be a broader purpose than simply making one person wealthy. Alignment between personal drivers in a team member, and a bigger idea is essential to distribute power in a trusted environment. Very few of us are intrinsically motivated to make someone else very rich. So from top to bottom, everyone must go through some process of self-exploration. It requires understanding what is valuable to them in performing the work, discovering what connects with them and what doesn't. And if the leader doesn't do this then it creates a form of open irony, that the daily practices have changed but the underlying raison d'être hasn't shifted at all. 

To take this further, if there are stated values in an organisation, and the leaders fail to live them, this is more toxic than having nothing written down at all. In the absence of the real embodiment of values, both in public and private, then people disconnect from the whole mission. And in place of the organisation's values, they simply bring their own. This is a perfect recipe for chaos and poorly managed conflict.

It’s more messy, not less

So my recommendation is that if you're a leader, and you're also inspired by self-organising in some form. Check with yourself, really check, that this isn't simply a way to let go of difficult people stuff. 

Traditional power-based hierarchies attempt to reduce the amount of human complexity involved in work. To iron out the kinks and to keep things consistent. I'd categorise this as a control-based structure. With liberating/self-organising structures, it opens up the complexity, embraces it and leans into the inherent value and creativity in us all. This is a form of productivity that looks incredibly unfamiliar in the workplace. 

Radical, or even moderate, delegation of power involves more messy human stuff, not less. It's not an easy journey at all, but it's my belief that it's worth taking - if you know why you're taking it.

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