IN TOUCH : Dinosaurs or democracy?

Describing managers as dinosaurs is perhaps not very kind – but for visiting organisational experts Joan Goldsmith and Ken Cloke, it’s by way of being wake-up call.
“It’s not that managers don’t perform valuable functions, but that these ought to increasingly become the responsibility of employees to take on for themselves,” explains Cloke.
The reality is that organisations are moving toward more democratic, participatory structures. And the things that can’t be managed – list that includes trust, creativity, innovation, values, commitment and integrity – are much more the stuff of leadership.
“These are the things you can lead people with,” says Cloke. “But you can’t stand over someone’s shoulder and design step-by-step process for them to follow that will end up with them becoming creative.”
Cloke and Goldsmith heralded The End of Management and Rise of Organisational Democracy in jointly authored book back in 2002 and followed that up with The Art of Waking People Up: Cultivating Awareness and Authenticity at Work (both published by Warren Bennis). In New Zealand last month as guests of Massey University, they talked about how to create democratic organisation and ran workshops on dispute resolution.
The two subjects are totally intertwined, says Goldsmith.
“That’s because conflict resolution is at the heart of the change process and at the heart of any democratic organisation. What we’re talking about is everyone, at every level of the organisation from factory floor to boardroom, having skills in confronting conflicts, preventing them and resolving them when they do emerge.”
Cloke has shorthand description for conflict in organisations.
“We call it the sound made by the cracks in the system. What happens in organisations is that you get individual conflict but you also get chronic conflict.”
These are costly cracks.
“We believe and know, because we’ve been working in this area for 25 years, that conflict is not just something that isn’t working but is something that if it were fixed and made to work would allow the organisation to become far more effective,” says Cloke.
It’s not question of boundless sweetness and light. The point is that conflict can be both positive and energising if it is well handled. What they’re talking about is higher level of conflict and higher order of resolution technique.
“It’s to do with the attitude toward conflict and toward learning,” says Goldsmith. “What we try to do is help managers not to fear the conflict but to take it on and use it as learning opportunity both for themselves and those directly affected.”
If swept under the carpet, conflict tends to expand – creating more widespread fissures in the system. It’s an issue that Cloke in his role as director of the California-based Centre for Dispute Resolution, knows plenty about. He says there is now tool that provides organisations with detailed ‘conflict audit’.
“This looks at the chronic sources of conflicts, how much they’re costing the organisation, how much managerial time is spent resolving them, what can be done to prevent them, what can be done to manage or resolve them better. This is very powerful method that has saved companies millions and millions of dollars.”
But few companies have yet embraced it – though lack of conflict resolution ability is major stumbling block in the creation of democratic organisation. Hierarchic structures just don’t provide enough opportunity to resolve strife, says Cloke.
“It’s difficult to have those face-to-face conversations in which informal problem solving or conflict resolution can take place. It’s very difficult for personnel to have conversation with engineering or with sales. And this is what leadership does – it brings together disparate parts of the organisation into single conversation.”
Cloke and Goldsmith talk about ‘linking leadership’ that builds bridges between different teams. Or, as Goldsmith puts it: “They make porous the boundaries between departments and organisations and provide context of values and of human wellbeing for the work people are doing.”
While the past few years have brought whole raft of ‘leadership’ initiatives, Cloke doesn’t think many companies have got the whole picture. The language may have shifted but it hasn’t always been accompanied by real shift in organisational power.
“The shorthand answer to your question is that we don’t see enough of large scale transformation at this point in the way decisions are actually being made.”
Both he and Goldsmith – whose long-term collaboration means they’ve had “several years of trying to figure out how to argue better with each other” – reckon New Zealand offers good case study in conflict resolution. That, ventures Clone, could partly be due to living on an island. There’s no place else to go to avoid conflict. Also because we have “an indigenous population with long history of conflict and very intelligent decision to work these issues through”.
That we’ve been able to make stand on nuclear arms, resisted jumping to warlike solutions and made efforts to make amends for the historical pain caused by colonisation is something to admire, says Goldsmith.
Conflict resolution is still very young field, says Cloke. But everyone involved in it understands that it has transformational power.
“I don’t think we will be able to stop global warming, or solve problems in the Middle East or stop the war in Iraq or any of those things unless people figure out how to talk with each other and engage in joint problem solving.
“People are capable of coming together in their conflicts and understanding each other and this is really part of the purpose of management. So we see conflict resolution as place where management does become leadership – and you can’t do without leadership.”

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