Decentralization: Moving Towards a Leaderless Organization

I would like to share on the interesting classifications of organizations based on a book I had read, “The Starfish and the Spider”. The author classifies organizations into two categories – they are either spiders, with a traditional hierarchy and top-down organization, or they are revolutionary starfish, which rely on the power of peer relationships. With centralized systems, we know who is in charge, and these leaders make decisions in a specific place. In decentralized organizations, there is no leader, no hierarchy, and no headquarters; it is an open system. These systems are not complete anarchy, however. Rules and norms do exist, but they are not enforced by any one person. Rather, the power is distributed among all the people involved across any number of geographical regions.

This classification got me thinking about the fundamentals: what does “leadership” entail – is the existence of leadership beneficial for society? What happens when no one is in charge in an organization? Would instead a “leaderless” organization, as encapsulated in the trend of decentralized organizations, be better?

Through studies, researchers have concluded that leadership could be either good or bad, depending on the leadership style. For example, transformational leadership is good, whereas command and control tend to be ineffective and hence classified under the bad side of things. However, fundamentally, the myth of leadership creates the belief that only a relatively few “gifted” individuals can be anointed leaders and so trusted to make the decisions and do the commanding and controlling of everyone else. It makes assumptions about both leaders and followers – with detrimental consequences for both. A dichotomy is created, two categories: one of leaders – a select and privileged few; and the second of followers – the vast majority. So you get secrecy, distrust, overindulgence, and the inevitable sacrifice of those below for the benefit of those above. When we use the word “leadership,” we immediately create a ranked division of people in ways that do not serve healthy organizational relationships.

Contrary to leadership whereby its existence creates negative division within the organization, a decentralized and leaderless organization brings about numerous benefits. Fore mostly, improved motivation. A decentralized organisation structure is one which facilitates delegation, communication and participation, hence providing greater motivation to its managers for higher productivity. Secondly, decentralization encourages personnel development. Capable personnel are developed by empowering and delegating individuals the authority to make important decisions. Such wide exposure gives them opportunity to grow and have self-development, hence reinforcing this self-sustaining loop of developing quality individuals for the leaderless ecosystem. Thirdly, decentralization makes decision-making quicker and better since decisions do not have to be referred up through the hierarchy, hence allowing for quicker and better decisions at lower levels to be taken. Therefore it comes as no surprise then that decentralized starfish organizations can sneak up on spiders – centralized organizations – because starfish are nimble; they mutate and grow quickly.

Despite the discussed move towards decentralized and leaderless organizations, it would be useful to consider its potential pitfalls. Firstly, the difficulties of according blame. As a society we want to point our fingers at someone – an individual. The murkiness of pointing our fingers at a leaderless group makes it difficult to find a target for our energy (either positive or negative) and it is somewhat unsatisfying to the public to get angry at a faceless corporation when it comes to a specific issue. Secondly, decentralisation may lead to inconsistencies (i.e. absence of uniformity) at the organisation level. For example, uniform policies or procedures may not be followed for the same type of work in different divisions. Given these cons of embarking on a decentralized structure, just to list a few, organizations ought to carefully weigh the benefits and costs prior to embarking on the leaderless path.

Part of the concept of peer thinking is that inherent in every organization is the wisdom and competence to make this happen and to apply the assumptions, logic, and practices of peer thinking to each unique situation. However, are all organizations indeed suited for decentralization/ leaderless-ness? On top of the cost-benefit analysis of embarking on a decentralized model, companies should ascertain the nature of the organization to evaluate and hence determine whether a fit with a decentralized culture exists, and is necessarily compelling. I personally feel that certain characteristics of an organization will make it more inclined towards the adoption of leaderless-ness, and benefit to a greater extent from decentralization than other organizations. Basically, decentralized structures work best when a company’s main point of differentiation is innovation. Organizations that are competing in a rapidly evolving industry, and working with short product life cycles would be inclined to adopt the discussed model. In such cases, organizational teams need to be nimble to respond to a rapidly changing environment; internal alignment with the fast-changing external environment. From e-commerce retailers like Zappos to tech companies like Valve (famous for having no bosses), flat and decentralized organizations are prospering.

In conclusion, it ought to be noted that in bringing across “cons” of leadership within an organization, the positive effects that emerge from good leadership styles as described in present literature are real and should not be ignored. Instead, they serve merely to propel us into thinking about alternatives such as leaderless-ness and decentralization, as well as their benefits. Furthermore, in light of the costs, and benefits being contingent upon the nature of an organization, the choice of embarking towards decentralization should be carefully thought through.

Organizational Perception of Subcultures

Organizations are usually made up of several subgroups of employees who share a value system that may not conform to the predominant value system that defines an organization’s corporate culture. In other words, these organizational subcultures possess distinctive corporate culture. Often, subcultures are viewed as a threat to overall organizational stability as managers perceive these distinct cultures as a manifestation of a deviation from the dominant culture – a form of value misalignment. In addressing this widespread preconceived notion on subculture’s effect on organizations, I’d like to question: Are subcultures all that bad? Are there cases in which subcultures should be allowed? Might subcultures even be beneficial to the organization?

In my opinion, the existence of subculture is not necessarily negative. The subculture’s negative, neutral, or positive effect on the organization depends on whether its values conflicts with the dominant culture’s pivotal or peripheral values. Pivotal values are central to an organization’s functioning whereas peripheral values are desirable but are not believed by members to be essential to an organization’s functioning.While it can be argued that subcultures are indeed a threat to organization, it only holds true when subculture members hold values that conflict with pivotal organizational values. This threatens the strength of the overarching culture. In the presence of such conditions, the lack of the subcultures’ alignment in organization is considered critical and important to manage, and it might be better for management to eradicate these subcultures. Although extreme, such tactics may benefit the overall organizational culture and performance in the long run.

However, there are situations in which subcultures are not necessarily all that bad and have a neutral effect towards the overarching culture. This is in cases where members both embrace the dominant cultures’ values but also hold their own set of distinct, but not conflicting peripheral values. Since the values that differ between subculture members and members of the dominant culture are less important to the functioning and identity of the organization than are the pivotal values, the existence of this subculture does not threaten the cohesiveness of the overarching culture.  In such cases, since both sub and dominant culture can coexist harmoniously, subcultures should be allowed.

In some cases, subcultures might go beyond existing harmoniously, and can even be seen as beneficial to the organization. This is exemplified in the case of subculture members adhering to dominant organizational culture values even more enthusiastically than do members of the rest of the organization; agreeing with and caring about both pivotal and peripheral values. In this case, subculture can enrich the dominant culture, supporting the values and norms of organization’s culture. Apart from benefits in the form of an enhancing subculture, I personally feel that subcultures yield numerous other benefits to an organization.

Firstly, subcultures allow an organization to possess a culture that is agile without losing strength. While strong cultures can provide organizations with significant advantages, but when the basis for survival rests on an organization’s ability to change and adapt, a strong culture can be a liability. One way that strong culture organizations can become agile without losing their basis of strength, is by allowing certain types of subcultures to emerge. This allows the organization to simultaneously reap the benefits of building and maintaining a strong culture while remaining responsive to dynamic environments. Subcultures can permit an organization to generate varied responses to the environment without necessarily destroying its internal coherence. In addition, subcultures may provide the flexibility and responsiveness that a unitary culture may limit.

Secondly, as a subculture does not agree with the values and norms of the dominant culture, it aids in the development and provision of alternative methods of achieving organizational goals. As such, they maintain the organization’s standards of performance and ethical behaviour. Employees who hold countercultural values are an important source of surveillance and evaluation of the dominant order. They encourage constructive controversy and more creative thinking about how the organization should interact with its environment. Subcultures prevent employees from blindly following one set of values and thereby help the organization to abide by society’s ethical values.

Thirdly, subcultures also serve as the spawning grounds for emerging values that keep the firm aligned with the needs of customers, suppliers, society and other stakeholders. Companies eventually need to replace their dominant values with ones that are more appropriate for the changing environment. If subcultures are suppressed, the organization may take longer to discover and adopt values aligned with the emerging environment.

In order to successfully manage an organization, leaders must be able to create and maintain effective cultures and subcultures, which entail recognizing the nature of the subculture existing within the organization. The aforementioned discussed stresses the importance for management to have a proper understanding of the type of subculture existing within the company, and not paint all subcultures with the same negative ‘values misalignment’-brush. Negative effect only holds true when the subcultures go against the prevailing culture of the company. In other cases, the deviation from the dominant culture doesn’t seem all that bad after all, do they?

Can Emotional Labour be Good?

The Emotional Labour Theory deals with emotions which employees feel, or pretend to feel, in an attempt to meet their job requirements. Basically, emotional labour is emotion regulation and management to create bodily and facial displays compliant with social requirements. This emotional management occurs within the workforce and creates a situation in which the emotion management by workers can be exchanged in the marketplace.

This definition suggests that emotional labour is primarily beneficial to the employer and organization by enhancing the efficiency of working, reducing the necessity of direct control, and lessening interpersonal problems. In addition, the projection of a uniform behaviour results in the provision of high-quality services, efficient fulfillment of duties, and regular customers. On the other hand, it has been largely purported that apart from the monetary benefit attained from the market exchange, the effects which emotional labour has on individuals are predominantly negative. However, I would like to question: Is emotional labour solely an oppressive act?  Is emotional labour really all that negative for individuals? Does nothing good come out from emotional labour? Can emotional labour instead be good for an employee?

In my opinion, there exists a variety of reasons of why and how emotional labour should also have positive effects on an individual’s psychological well-being. Amidst the negativity emotional labour is shrouded in, we ought to identify the ways positive effects of emotional labour are fostered. From which, further research can be done to find ways to tap on and maximize the positives while minimizing the negatives.

Firstly, at the level of social interactions, it ought to be noted that display rules present within an organization while beneficial for organizations as mentioned above, serves to simultaneously benefit employees. It assists employees in completing job tasks by providing guidelines that allow them to understand how they should interact and communicate with their customers through display training. If service providers successfully meet the requirement to display and sense emotions, this will have positive effects by contributing to the feeling of self-efficacy of personal accomplishment, which might in fact be a liberating experience. Furthermore, emotional compliance with organizational and social requirements leads to predictable emotional displays. This reduces the possibility that embarrassing interpersonal situations may arise.

Secondly, emotional labour allows the fulfillment of the affiliation motive.  This is satisfied on two levels. On the first level, dealing with customers and expressing emotions when interacting with them satisfies needs for affiliation, status and recognition. In addition, the intentional expression of positive emotions usually increases the probability of the interaction partner (customer) to show reciprocal positive emotions in return. This positive feedback serves to bolster the positiveness of the affiliation interaction, and at the same time contributes to the employee’s satisfaction and self-esteem. On a second level, the courtesies in the workplace set by display rules fosters cooperation, hence increasing the degree of affiliation experienced by an employee within an organization.

Lastly, emotional labour can be a source of job satisfaction depending on whether the employee is experiencing surface acting, or deep acting. High level of emotional labour can be rewarding if a person is deep acting. Employees who participate in deep acting – measured as the extent to which employees attempt to modify their internal feelings to be more genuine with clients – had the following positive effects. Fore mostly, by aligning employees emotions with the emotional expectations at work, neither emotional dissonance nor negative side-effects will occur. At the same time, they genuinely feel a direct private benefit in the form of job satisfaction through good work performance. For example, an nurse may be intrinsically motivated to be genuine and truly care about her patients. Therefore, she may avoid depersonalizing or objectifying these clients and in turn may feel that the job’s emotional demands make it meaningful and rewarding.

In bringing across these benefits of emotional labour towards individuals, I would however like to point out that these positive consequences do not reduce the incidence rate of negative effects that emerge from emotional labour as described in literature. Instead, they serve to modulate a picture of the phenomenon that has thusfar been painted in very dark colours, and highlight that emotional labour isn’t all that bleak after all. Emotional labour should not be shunned like the plague. Instead, in getting employees to perform emotional labour, management should aim to alter their perception, to expose and educate employees on the positive side of emotional labour. Because when an employee understands the benefits of emotional labour such as the aforementioned ones, agrees with the display rules laid down by management, and executes these emotions in good faith, an employee might come to understand that emotional labour is necessary, and in fact can be potentially good for them.