Ari's Top 5

Putting Power Back into Our Cultural Soil

Sharing power toward a more positive future

Folk singer Billy Bragg says, “We live in an age of rage. People feel their voices are ignored.” Political scientist Yascha Mounk writes, “Looking around the world, I see depressingly few democratic bright spots.” He also said, “Voters have long since concluded that they have little influence on public policy.” Whether it’s in countries or in companies, that sort of disengagement will slowly but surely lead to what positive psychologist Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness.” In the context of what I’ve been writing about over the last month, it will quickly kill the cultural soil of an organization. Unfortunately, it’s all too common. As David Whyte put it, many companies have created “a kind of postmodern serfdom.” I wrote a bunch about it in Secret #19, “Fixing the Energy Crisis in the American Workplace,” citing a New York Times column that said:

Gallup estimates the cost of America’s disengagement crisis at a staggering $300 billion in lost productivity annually. When people don’t care about their jobs or their employers, they don’t show up consistently, they produce less, or their work quality suffers.

When the power goes out after a storm, we wait, impatiently, for the utility company to restore it so we can get back to whatever (at home or on the job) we were working on. What follows in this newsletter is a call to get the power flowing again inside our organizations, to put more of it back where I believe it belongs—into the hands, heads, and hearts of the people we work with. And, metaphorically, back into our cultural soil from whence I would suggest it emanates; ultimately, we can only lead when the people who are part of our organizations opt to follow.

When I talk about restoring power, please understand that I’m not suggesting that we “overthrow” owners or ban managers from the business. This approach is about meaningfully and collaboratively tapping into the natural creative intelligence of everyone we work with. I’m not just talking about adding another suggestion box; I mean real and active engagement in the running of the business. A way to work where “empowerment” isn’t just a slogan slapped on the break room door, but rather a real, practical, everyday reality. This is about creating a workplace where we can say, in a down-to-earth way, that we invite people to have a meaningful say in the way their work gets done and the company is run. As Peter Block writes, “Our goal is to have all members believe and act like this is their organization and to take personal responsibility for how it operates.”

Certainly, not all power is the same. What Billy Bragg and Yascha Mounk wrote about can be called “power over”—a single leader, or small group of leaders, wielding power over others, primarily for the bosses’ own benefit. But it doesn’t have to be that way. As Brené Brown explains:

Daring and transformative leaders share power with, empower people to, and inspire people to develop power within. [They] believe that power becomes infinite and expands when shared with others.

While there is certainly no single universally accepted definition of power in organizations, I love what Dr. Martin Luther King said: “Power is the ability to achieve purpose. Power is the ability to effect change.” I believe that restoring power—as Dr. King described it—to those we employ is an important element of improving the health of our organizations and restoring the vibrancy of our cultural soils. As Gifford and Libba Pinchot write, “In the coming revolution in the workplace, only those organizations that decentralize, distribute power, and grow a community of differences will be able to embrace the breadth and speed of change.” Putting power back in the cultural soil of our organizations is an essential part of the work we all have in front of us.

This approach to meaningful empowerment begins with a belief in abundance. As John U. Bacon writes, “The more power you have, the more you can give away—and the more power you give away, the more power you will ultimately have.” What John has described parallels the way I believe this can and should work in nature. It’s a sustainable cycle that benefits all involved, one that will help make our organizational ecosystem meaningfully healthier over the long haul.

Speaking of ecosystems, in reading Erin McMorrow’s book Grounded, I was struck by what she had to say about the role of carbon in the soil, what happens when it’s lost to the atmosphere, and the work that regenerative farmers do to get it back into the soil. The situation is well-understood in the scientific community and among climate activists, but given that I’m a history major, not a scientist (and that I fell asleep in chemistry every morning for the first week of my freshman year before dropping the class), I appreciate Erin’s commitment to describing the science at what she calls “a kindergarten level.” (If you are a scientist, I apologize for my rudimentary understanding. I have to start somewhere!) Erin writes, “If you think about holding what seems like healthy soil, it’s going to be dark and rich, because it’s going to have carbon in it. … Carbon rich soil is good for plants and humans.” In a healthy ecosystem it’s part of a natural cycle—carbon leaves the soil, goes into the air, and then is returned to the soil. Like many cycles, this one can continue on for a long time, essentially undisturbed. The problem comes when the cycle is broken and carbon stays in the air (or ends up in the ocean.) This creates a carbon imbalance that has led to what Erin describes as our “broken relationship with the soil.” To fix the problem, she says, “We need to draw carbon out of the air and store it in the earth. A lot of it, over a long time.” Erin restates, “The place for carbon to go is back in the soil.”

Taking in what Erin was saying, it dawned on me that maybe in the context of “cultural soil,” carbon might be the metaphorical equivalent of power in the organizational ecosystem. When it’s held naturally in the “organizational soil,” then there’s an appropriate and meaningful, healthy distribution of power in the culture. Conversely, “if we kill that ecosystem in any way,” Erin writes, “the carbon in the soil then gets released into the atmosphere.” In nature, this leads to the dangers of climate change. In the organizational ecosystem, it creates an equally dangerous—if also easy to ignore in the day-to-day—scenario. In the ecosystem metaphor, air is purpose. When carbon/power is proportionately too high in the atmosphere, then perhaps the metaphor follows—power will then have become our purpose.

This imbalance of power will lead, inevitably, to bad things. As the Pinchots write, “The belief that one is powerless because others are in charge destroys community.” Physicist and philosopher David Bohm writes, “Hierarchy is antithetical to dialogue.” Former British diplomat-turned-constructive-anarchist-thinker and advisor Carne Ross writes, “If you do not give people responsibility, they tend to behave irresponsibly, and sometimes violently.” The thesis is the same throughout. Good people who have no power—or at least feel like they have none—will never consistently do good work. And in the same way that the loss of carbon from the soil is slowly destroying the balance and health of our planet, so too, the loss of power in the cultural soil is quietly killing the companies who allow it to happen.

Over time, people without any meaningful say are almost certain to grow disengaged, and eventually, disenchanted. At some level, they get bored, and as Paul Tillich insightfully said, “boredom is rage spread thin.” The anger, shutting down, and cynicism that are the products of unhealthy cultures become like pesticides and poisons that seep into the soil systems of their communities. Slow steady cultural degradation can, even while extraction continues to make the profit and loss statement look passable, leave us with so little good soil that we find, one day, we can no longer grow much of anything good. (Think about all those big companies that slowly “die” over a period of decades before, finally, closing their doors for good.) Cultural soil, in those cases, becomes dry, unsustainable. If we stay on that path, it will not end well. As 19th century geologist (and U of M grad) Thomas C. Chamberlain warned, “When our soils are gone, we too, must go unless we find some way to feed on raw rock.”

The good news is that we have the power to repair the damage. As psychologist Virginia Satir said, “There is almost no troubled situation that cannot be improved by rearranging it to distribute power more equally.” This is true, I would suggest, in families, communities, companies, and countries. The concentration of power at the top of an organization leads to creative imbalance, and more often than not, long periods of what Rollo May called “passivism.” I’m sure there are exceptions, but pretty much every revolution in history I can recall came about because of a perceived imbalance of power.

We need—both on the planet and with our coworkers—to reverse this situation if we want to stay alive. In organizations, I would suggest it is as the Pinchots write, “Everyone needs power to be heard and to influence the course of things.” Ashanti Alston says, “I just know that the power has to be with the people… where it’s possible for them to be who they are, and where it’s possible to have that world where everyone fits… where you are actually becoming aware of your creative power.” If we want a positive future it will depend on creatively and meaningfully sharing that power. The Pinchots say, “Organizations will need to move a long way in the direction of equality of power and compensation to bring out the intelligence and talent of every employee.”… “In robust systems, power is distributed, and many voices have a say.”

The good news too is that we have the power to “put the carbon back into the cultural soil,” not in a once-a-century, revolutionary upheaval, but in the daily cycle of the sort that carbon ought to be following. As Carne Ross writes, “Decision making is better when it includes the people most affected.” In the spirit of cycles, I remembered too that “revolution” comes from the word “revolve”—it’s not meant to be an explosive, one-time event, but rather a regular, repeated activity that over time changes the world. Restoring the metaphorical carbon that belongs in our cultural soils can be just that. In the same way that it would have a radically positive impact on the planet, I believe the same happens in business. Knowing that we have much to do to keep getting better at this going forward, here are some of the ways we do it here:

  • Bottom Line Change — When it’s used well, our organizational change process gives anyone in the organization the power to initiate a conversation about a change they believe would benefit the business. I’ve written much more on how powerful this process is in the pamphlet of the same name and in a piece from last fall.

  • Consensus at the partner level — Consensus is one of the keys to making Zingerman’s what it is. We definitely don’t employ it for everything, but we do use it at the partner level and a number of management teams here use it as well. We also use it with all the partners on what we call the “Partners Group” to run the whole ZCoB. It spreads power throughout a group of twenty instead of concentrating it in the hands of the two founders.

  • Staff partners — Putting three non-partners into the Partners Group consensus has been a hugely positive force in the organization. They have the same say in the consensus as I do.

  • Opening all our meetings — One of the best things I believe we ever did was to make it our organizational default that all meetings would be open to anyone who worked here, unless there was a meaningful reason to close them. (This is the exact opposite of how it is in most places.) Of course, not everyone comes to every meeting. As Peter Block says, opening the meetings is a peer-to-peer invitation to participate, not an order to attend. One’s presence is meaningful, but it’s not mandatory. If you make this change, no matter how it plays out, power is quickly put back into the cultural soil—even choosing not to attend is, in itself, an act of self-empowerment.

  • Open Book Management — By actively sharing and teaching financial information, we have significantly altered the power balance in the organization. Anyone who works here can, even on their sixth day, show up at a huddle, see sales and profit numbers, ask questions, and get involved in a way that would never happen for front line folks in most organizations. Both the organization and the staff members are better for it!

  • Lean management — The teachings of Dr. Deming and the folks at Toyota put power into the hands of the people doing the work. When someone learns how to systematically improve systems for the benefit of the whole group, good things are bound to happen.

  • The Training Compact — Maggie from ZingTrain led us in the work to do this about 25 years ago. From the beginning of employment here at Zingerman’s we ask people to take responsibility for the effectiveness of their own training. Jenny Tubbs, who runs Zingerman’s Press, shared that when she learned the Training Compact on her first day at work:

    I had come from places where you were given the direction and you were supposed to just follow it. But the Training Compact lets you know that dialogue is welcome here. It taught me that I’m supposed to ask questions and take ownership of my training, not just memorize what’s being said and do it. Being taught the Training Compact invited me immediately into a collaborative training experience.

  • Stewardship — Our adaptation of some of Peter Block’s wisdom, Stewardship as we apply it, calls on us to engage with everyone we interact with as an equal peer, regardless of where their name might show up on the org chart, to “negotiate through to agreement.” It leads to conversation and mutual understanding. And it works. Zach Milner, a dining room manager at the Roadhouse says, “I probably use the Stewardship Compact when an employee thinks of an alternative way to complete a task at least 4 times a shift. The Stewardship Compact is the low-key hero of how I manage every shift. I love it!”

  • Visioning — By doing visioning in a collaborative way, we give everyone here the opportunity to learn this essential leadership and life skill!

  • Start a Conversation — Even if you don’t want to do any of these more formal things, you can still casually but effectively give power to the people you work with simply by taking the time to have engaging conversations with them. Former NBA All Star Chris Bosh says, “I just love starting a discussion. I think that’s what the future is really going to be about.” Take a few minutes. Ask someone you work with—preferably someone who would not normally be chatting with you about business strategy or market trends—some meaningful questions. Listen to their answers. Share more thoughts. Listen again. If you make even one change because of what they said you will likely begin to alter their beliefs about themselves and the business. Even just genuinely thanking them for their thoughts can make a difference!

I understand that folks we hire may not want to take this invitation to “take” power every time it’s offered. Many have life circumstances that will lead them in the other direction. Many have bought into the belief that—for better or for worse—it’s all about the boss. People take a passive stance because they’ve been taught as Peter Block says, “leaders are cause and all others are effect.” It’s a belief that “undermines a culture in which each is accountable for their community.” As Peter puts it:

There is a part of us that does not want more autonomy, choice or responsibility. We want to be taken care of. We like the patriarchal contract. We want our bosses to be good parents. Choosing ownership, agency, and partnership means giving up safety. None of us gives up safety gracefully. Claiming freedom and autonomy mean sacrificing innocence and security. This is the transformation we are moving through; it is difficult and demanding, and it triggers deep ambivalence. …The attitude that it is not my fault is the essence of disempowerment.

The old-school approach Peter is describing is hardly uncommon. As Gustav Landauer said, “These people have not yet understood that they have to free the power that lies within themselves.” Ultimately, it’s up to each of us to change that situation for ourselves. As writer Zainab Salbi says, “Freedom is an inside job.” That said, we can increase the odds of new members of our organization embracing power in a constructive way—when we create good work, places where people can more and more meaningfully be themselves, when they can see clearly how their voice and their views have impact, their power to participate is increased from the inside out as well. And the health of our cultural soil will almost certainly be enhanced in the process. As Peter Block says,

Freedom [is] the choice to be a creator of our own experience and accept the unbearable responsibility that goes with that… the real task of leadership is to confront people with their freedom. This may be the ultimate act of love that is called for from those who hold power over others. Choosing our freedom is also the source of our willingness to choose to be accountable. …Freedom is not an escape from accountability, as the popular culture so often misunderstands… freedom is what creates accountability.

When we do this, we encourage what Peter Block thinks of as “citizens.” The term is an interesting way to think about people who are part of our organizations. Words have power. Change the way we hear the word, and we change the way we experience our lives. As Peter says, “Citizens who use their power to convene other citizens are what create an alternative future… Citizens have the capacity to create for themselves whatever they require.”

Erin McMorrow says, “Carbon is one of the most basic and mundane things around, and also one of the most miraculous—the stuff of charcoal was originally born from stars.” I believe we could say the same sorts of things about power. In the wrong hands it may be mundane, malevolent, or even malicious. But used well, power can be marvelously magical, a transformative element in helping to restore the vibrancy and vitality that is naturally inherent in every human being. When we do it right, we can continually push power back into our cultural soil, and our cultures will be healthier for it. Over time we will make a meaningful difference in the lives of the people who are part of our organizations, many of whom will carry their newly re-empowered presence into other parts of their lives and communities. In the process, we can metaphorically set the tone for the work we need to do on the planet as well. Peter Block references his friend, author John McKnight, who continually “finds that the most sustainable improvements in community occur when citizens discover their own power to act.” And as Erin McMorrow writes, “You belong. You are worthy. You are infinitely powerful. Use this power for the highest good of all. We’ve got this.”

Read The Power of Beliefs in Business
For more on my beliefs about leadership and the positive use of power see The Power of Beliefs in Business.