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Sunday, February 07, 2021

Organizational hierarchy is immoral by default

I've been thinking lately about how organizations make up of decent people can do immoral things.

When you have to do something, you usually do it. In relationships where you have less than half the power, or roughly half, you need to be careful to tell the truth, keep track of your promises, and generally own the things you say and do.

But if you have much more than half the power, you just don't really need to do any of those things. You can even intend to do them, and do them much of the time, and credit yourself for doing them. But when you don't do them -- when you misstate facts, or omit facts, or ignore your promises, or reverse course without owning the change, or drop a position without acknowledging it, or enforce a rule that hasn't been articulated -- well, you totally can.

There are many forms of self-regulation that are effective, without requiring external pressure. And in organizations, there are leaders who work to hold themselves to a high standard on these measures.

You might say that in the long term, this self-regulation is rational and strategic, because an organization without it will bleed people and customers. Maybe, but the pressure is very indirect. Whereas the more basic effects of a power imbalance are more obvious. As in, what can get you fired?

Take lying. A boss can generally get someone under them fired, or at least written up and put under HR pressure, for being caught lying about something substantial. But what about when the employee catches the boss in a lie? It's not that there is no repercussion ever. But in a basic sense, the employee won't get very far going to HR and telling what happened.

It's analogous to police violence. It's a perfectly mainstream thing to think, "I know the police may have been too aggressive when they shot that guy, but there was a scuffle and for all they know, he was going to kill them." But it's much more uncommon to think "I know that citizen may have been too aggressive when he shot that cop, but there was a scuffle and for all he knew, the cop was going to kill him." Which he did!

I hope nobody kills anyone, and I support police safety and understand the risks of policing. I'm just trying to point out that when we look at a situation with a genuine power imbalance, that shapes the lens of what we do and don't see as acceptable.

In a relationship with roughly equal power -- a marriage, say, or a business partnership -- there is often a LOT of messy back and forth. Tons of feedback happening. Lots of apologies and changes of course. That's not because the people involved suck at relationship, it's because they're *good* at relationship, and a power balanced relationship involves lots of doing fucked up things, yelling at each other, listening better, and changing.

What does it do to a relationship, if you take the power and make it wildly imbalanced? Well, it becomes no longer possible to hammer out grievances the less powerful person has.

You can still hammer out grievances! There can still be listening and change! But it's essentially one-way, with only small, limited, heavily risky opportunities for expressing grievances the other way. This isn't due to anyone involved being a bad person. It's the underlying power situation. Rewind time, switch the individuals in their hierarchical roles, and you'd probably get the same result.

How do you defy this trend? Well, you can't pretend it doesn't exist. "Let's all get drinks and be chums" is good, but it doesn't actually threaten the power imbalance, so it's immaterial to this dynamic.

To undo it in a systematic way, you need to actually shift the power dynamics in ways that are not just window dressing.

Take something like giving credit: what I've seen, over and over, is that credit is given in groups according to power alliances more than according to work. So to combat this, you need institutional practices that pay attention to who is doing what work, and you need to use those to recognize contributions *even when they seem off*.

As with a Constitution, this sort of practice doesn't matter when it easily aligns with the way things are already done. It matters when you don't want to do it, but do it anyway. "Ugh, Carol again, she's such a PITA... Hey everyone, let's thank Carol for arranging this meeting."

You could have a practice like a weekly survey of whose work is helping you most, and use it to specifically recognize people, with negative bias the higher in the hierarchy someone is. And you can make "asking tough questions" a specifically solicited quality of meetings and workplace culture, with cultural practices like calling out others' questions for their value if they seemed difficult to ask.

Expertise with an area of work is different from management of that work, or of management in general. Make it a practice to seek out and consult those who know most about a topic in the org, not those who have the most power, when changing something in that area.

Overall, this is a problem that needs deliberate action to overcome the inherent bias in the power imbalance. Can people throughout your organization immediately point to ways that management gives up part of its power, and puts not just the feedback of the rank-and-file but the planning and direction of the rank-and-file on an equal basis with management?

If not, your organization may be immoral, in its structure, in a way that makes good intentions irrelevant.

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