When my nephew Yannai was very young, he confidently walked up to a parent who was giving strong instructions to another little one. “But he gets to decide, right?” he said, completely confident that all other households were run in the same way that his was. It never occurred to him at that time that the overwhelming majority of children in the world grow up constantly being told what to do or not do.
An Executive Director of a non-profit with a large staff presented herself to me as “the one that says ‘no’ to everyone,” accepting that others would not like her because of that. She didn’t conceive of her role as the one making things possible for everyone. I didn’t see any evidence in our conversation that she could envision a collaborative relationship with the staff, where they decide together what makes sense and is doable within the budget.
During an in-service for teachers in a school, I asked the teachers to name the needs that their students were bringing with them to school and which they saw themselves as wanting to attend to. They named learning, safety, care, even meaning. The one glaring omission was the need for autonomy or choice. Teachers in this middle school did not see their students as having this need, or didn’t see it as part of their job as teachers to support this need. I don’t know which it was. What I do know is that when I brought up this point, talked about how huge children’s need for autonomy is, and made some suggestion about having students be involved in decisions that affect them, one of the teachers responded with great vehemence. What she said has stayed with me for the last nine years. “Oh, no,” she started. “What you are talking about is democracy in the classroom. My classroom is not a democracy. I am the dictator. I am a benevolent dictator, but I am the dictator.” There was no shred of doubt in my mind that this particular teacher was deeply committed to and cared about the well-being of the students in her classroom.
One day I walked into a room to have a mediation with two high level executives. As soon as I was in the room, it became apparent that they had been told by the CEO to schedule this meeting with me and had no idea about its purpose. They themselves had long resolved the issue that the mediation was supposed to be about. They shrugged their shoulders when we all found out what had happened. When I invited them to ask the CEO about this, to give her the feedback, to tell her why it didn’t work for them, they were incredulous. Why would they want to do that? It wasn’t so important, they both agreed, and, besides, she is the boss, and she gets to decide. It was their job to do what the boss wants. While I hear this comment at all levels in the organizations I serve, I was particularly surprised to hear it at the top level of an organization, from people who are in positions of primary leadership. Even there, they do not feel comfortable standing up to their boss.
I have written earlier about the essential importance of being able to hear “no” in the workplace, especially for people with power. As I wrote in that piece, I learned from a CEO I have worked with that having power for him meant he rarely heard “no.” I take the possibility of hearing “no” as an indispensable part of creating a collaborative culture. Indeed, I believe that any person in a leadership position who wants to increase collaboration would benefit immensely from consciously encouraging people to say “no”, so that they can experience a sense of power with the leader instead of only following orders.
Last week I canceled a class I had scheduled called “Hearing and Saying ‘no’ in the Workplace” because only 3 people had signed up. Almost to the one, the people in positions of leadership I have worked with, speak of collaboration and yet are committed to the fundamental principle that they get to decide. The practice and goal of collaborative leadership is rarely embraced. I have had no difficulty over the years in getting leaders to recognize, in the abstract, that getting people to do things because the leader has power, not because the person understands the purpose of what’s being asked and is on board with it, backfires. This understanding notwithstanding, almost all the leaders I have worked with expect, either explicitly or implicitly, that they have final decision making power, and that the people that report to them are expected to go along with their decisions.
As I am writing this piece, however, I am discouraged and perplexed. If the people at the top are ultimately reluctant to collaborate with the people with less power, and those with less power, even at the highest levels within an organization, are reluctant to speak up, to challenge their bosses, or to speak up in a group for what matters to them in the face of disagreement, how will the day ever come when enough of us operate collaboratively in the service of practical, material needs such as producing goods or services that all of us depend on?