Are shared governances primarily useful for bad managers?

In the context of my research work, I conduct longitudinal interviews of collaborators who adopt the principles of shared governance. By this, I mean the governance of organizations that decentralize authority, develop autonomy and the accompanying responsibility, transparency, and the trust that comes with it, in the service of a common purpose or raison d’être, the subject of “doing business.”
Recently, a verbatim caught my attention. I present it to you as it is: “I do not perceive [this type of governance] as [specifically] beneficial for employees but for the “bad managers”. Given that the “good ones” don’t need it and have been using similar methods for a long time.”

Apart from the fact that people’s happiness cannot be imposed unknowingly, I received this common-sense remark loud and clear.

One cannot impose happiness unknowingly

In my role as a trainer and advisor, I, along with my team, carry out managerial (hierarchical or transverse) diagnoses for hundreds of teams each year. Raised on traditional management, I learned on my own the cardinal virtues of shared governance mentioned above. In summary, I would say that I prefer individual initiative within the framework of collaborative collectives rather than the archaic principle of separating powers between the knowledgeable and the executors. I would also add that I am a strong believer in the unparalleled capacities of collective intelligence.

I remember a discussion about the absolute value of management methods with Mélissa Rouaba, Customer Success Manager, within the OpenDecide team. OpenDecide is the scientific tool resulting from French research that we use at NextGen to diagnose team and organization operations.

Mélissa told me, “If a team works well in directive management mode and doesn’t aspire to change, it’s not a problem.” I then argued about the “built-in” superiority of collaborative management methods in terms of developing the aforementioned qualities. 

I was mistaken! And I thank Mélissa for pointing out my error.

Firstly, a group can achieve remarkable results in various ways without being able to qualify one as better in terms of these results. Secondly, a team will operate optimally if it is aligned – in its daily work processes – between the situation it is experiencing and its aspirations. Finally, even though I understand Jack Welch’s statement, “I am in favor of change for change’s sake,” I prioritize the issue of meaning and thus the understanding and commitment that must drive this change.

In conclusion, a governance model is not an end in itself. It is a tool at the service of people and their common mission. This tool, as we will see later, remains at the service of the raison d’être and the value-creating processes for the organization.

Many managers turn to shared governance because they are poor managers

Many company founders have never had any counterbalance in their exercise of management or power. For management in large companies, it is still too often a necessary step in a career progression. In both cases, management is “endured” and often mediocre or downright dysfunctional, and in some cases, toxic.

Like sales, one either has an aptitude and desire for management, or not. Just like sales, one doesn’t learn it in school but relearns it every day. High-level leaders in challenging management situations usually quickly realize their limits and might be tempted to outsource “management” to a set of “game rules”, a framework. Having enough rules to truly liberate autonomy is a necessary progression. However, any form of leadership must primarily be human, engaging, inspiring, give meaning, connect with the raison d’être, and embody the famous “walk the talk” (doing what one says and saying what one does) of the desired values and behaviors within the organization. The disappointments of “mechanical” models or rigorous applications of rule sets alone are many. The management model or framework implemented “by the book” is often perceived as “cold,” “impersonal,” “rigid,” far removed from a living group with its strengths and vulnerabilities.

No, management cannot be coded or debugged! It is lived, with passion and patience.

Shared governance neither solves incompetence nor the misalignment between raison d'être, processes, and organizational structure

Some teams I come across complain, for instance, about work overload or the inability to achieve their goals, while other teams doing the same job in similar geographies within the same organization don’t even mention these issues. The former teams usually blame their hierarchy, the organization, or the “system”. I often notice an inability to organize one’s work: to prioritize it, to manage the sequences and workplaces. I also often observe the easy tendency to believe that the problem doesn’t come from oneself or one’s team, even though the individual and their team usually have the main levers in hand. This was exacerbated by the pandemic. This crisis, which made remote working “possible,” even in France, has opened a complexity registry unprecedented for managers trying to solve a daily equation with multiple unknowns. The same employees who demand flexibility in their workplace, their schedules, their roles, often argue about their inability to manage their workload, their goals, without ever questioning themselves. A hundred kilometers away, a similar team will outperform under the same temperature and pressure conditions.
People accept flexibility, autonomy, without assuming responsibility. Managing one’s time, roles, priorities, key objectives, and work context has become a prerequisite for performance in this post-Covid world, the skill that allows all other skills to be expressed. Shared governance will bring nothing more in this register than even greater room for maneuver. A dread for some, an opportunity for others.

Furthermore, some companies or teams notice the non-functioning of the switch to shared governance without ever working on aligning their raison d’être, their value-creating processes, and the organization. It’s staggering to see how many have literally “molded” the principles of shared governance without fundamentally changing the structure of their organization. The result goes beyond the worst assumptions: an integration effort that meets the contradictions of a structure with unchanged dysfunctions, now highlighted. The organization exists to create product or service value. The structure is, or at least should be, induced by the processes. The organizational bringing together of the actors of the processes that create value appears critical to achieving a good level of performance. Continuous improvement and coordination allow, on a daily basis, the actors of a process to work more smoothly.

The larger the company grows, the greater the risk of losing its sense. This often results in a weakened link between raison d’être, strategy, processes, and structure. Organizational entities and their levels of interdependence should be deduced from value creation and thus from business processes. Support functions, on the other hand, will either be integrated into circles crossed by the process or centralized. 

This fundamental work cannot be overlooked.

Author : Luc Bretones, Founder at NextGen