When CEO Tony Hsieh sent out an all-company email informing his Zappos team that they were moving completely to the Holacracy organizational structure of self-management, the story was huge. Zappos has long been the darling of the media for its forward-thinking workplace policies, so it’s no surprise that the media (and yes, we bloggers too) have jumped on the bandwagon to offer our take. Quartz was the first to publish Hsieh’s email, and from that point forward, there have been scoffs, applause, confusion, curiosity and more.
My initial reaction was, “Self-organizing teams? That’s so 1990’s.” Back in the day, I worked for Herman Miller, a company long known for its innovative workplace practices, and there were already leaderless self-organized teams in place. So, the concept of self-organization for work teams isn’t new. In fact, if you read Hsieh’s (4535 word!) email, you’ll see that proponents of self-organization take the concept all the way back to the beginnings of humankind. Hsieh’s email featured two very well-written articles to support why Zappos is fully moving to Holacracy; I found them fascinating.
Unfortunately, those same champions of this “new” way of organizing the way we work also turn to nature to help make their case. I say “unfortunate” because the comparisons sometimes fall short. Here is Frederic Laloux, one of the authors whom Hsieh featured in his email, writing on Morningstar’s Self -Management Institute’s blog about the misperceptions of self-management:
“In an ecosystem, interconnected organisms thrive without one holding power over another. A fern or a mushroom can express its full selfhood without ever reaching out as far into the sky as the tree next to which it grows. Through a complex collaboration involving exchanges of nutrients, moisture, and shade, the mushroom, fern, and tree don’t compete but cooperate to grow into the biggest and healthiest version of themselves.”
Although encouraging employees to grow into the “healthiest version of themselves” is admirable I suspect that few people (at Zappos or elsewhere) would appreciate being compared to a mushroom. And this is where I take issue with drawing parallels to human beings in a work environment to other, more naturally occurring ecosystems: when is the last time you saw a mushroom do a power grab to undercut a fellow mushroom?
Now, lest you think I’m against Holacracy, or any other form of self-organization, I’m not. Quite the opposite—I co-wrote a book that had, as its central theme, the premise that leadership is not about titles, and that everyone, at some point, can choose to lead. So I’m all on board with Holacracy’s key elements of redistributing power and decision-making.
At the same time, I’ve worked with thousands of employees over the past 25 years. Some held leadership or managerial titles; many did not. The one thing that all of these individuals had in common was their humanity, in all its splendid, yet flawed glory. People are greedy and they’re generous. They’re both cruel and caring. The list of adjectives could go on forever. But the one thing people are not is completely predictable. Sure, you can make some generalizations based on past history, and for the most part, you’d be right. But one of the most wonderful things about the human experiences is our capacity to surprise.
So although I commend Tony Hsieh and others who have gone before him to establish a more equitable and encouraging workplace, I caution others to tread lightly. The notion of Holacracy is, on its surface one of simplicity. But it’s not to be taken on lightly. As Hsieh acknowledges in his email, “This is a new, exciting, and bold move for Zappos. Like all the bold steps we’ve done in the past, it feels a little scary, but it also feels like exactly the type of thing that only a company such as Zappos would dare to attempt at this scale.”
Corporate cultures aren’t like viral Facebook posts, spreading quickly like the Zappos Holacracy announcement. Changes in the workplace cultural landscape take decades to take hold. The fact that we’re still talking about self-organized teams as a ground-breaking thing two decades after I experienced the concept is testament to the fact that it’s going to be a long time (if ever) that we see this concept take hold in the majority of organizations.
Holacracy is cool to discuss because it’s
insulting interesting to be compared to a mushroom. Although naturalistic comparisons are attention-grabbing, our humanity is the very thing that makes it a far more complicated proposition to flourish into our “healthiest version of ourselves” in the workplace. Leaders—and the self-organizers who may one day supplant them—would be wise to keep that in mind.
Image credit: Pixaby