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Leading through the death of deference

Posted on April 9, 2014

I have just read about the extraordinary events surrounding technology company Mozilla’s CEO Brendan Eich. It seems that around six years ago, Eich gave his support to an anti-gay marriage bill. Mozilla is a company with a very strong commitment to equality and when Eich’s past actions came to the attention of his employees they were dismayed by the incompatibility of the views of their CEO and the ethical position of their company. Many employees expressed their views, particularly on social media forums, and eventually Eich stepped down.

I was struck by how this chain of events leading to the resignation of a CEO was an example of the death of deference in action.

A modern phenomenon

We are all experiencing the effects of the death of deference - the rapid decline of public trust in, and loyalty to, institutions, organisations and experts. In a few generations we have moved from people prepared to accept the decisions of “our betters” to informed self-advocates. This has been precipitated partly by a series of high profile scandals in industry, healthcare, religious institutions and politics. The global financial crisis has changed the way many people see the banking industry forever and the MPs expenses debacle has invited a rather cynical view of career politicians from their constituents. However the biggest step change is our ability to access information for ourselves and share it widely and quickly. Members of the public are now able to discover an issue, raise awareness, organise an online petition and get questions asked in Parliament at speeds unavailable to MPs just 10 years ago. At scale, and with advances in other technological media, this can lead to revolution, as the 'Arab Spring' demonstrates. At the everyday level it is apparent in the way that we might Google our symptoms and potential treatments so that we can have an informed discussion with our GP.  

The good news for leaders

So what does this mean for leaders, a cohort of workers who have traditionally enjoyed a great degree of deference near the top of the organisation chart? Unsurprisingly, people who are able to exercise influence and personal power outside the workplace are very keen to do the same within it. This can be disconcerting to leaders who now find themselves working much harder to bring people along with their ideas.

I’m here to say that this is great news. Leaders can’t afford not to embrace this change and do everything in their power to hasten the death of deference. Let’s think about this. The world that leaders are currently facing is complex, changing rapidly and volatile. Distant events are connected to the success of organisations in ways that can’t even be predicted. Demographics are shifting and technology comes along periodically to throw everything up in the air again. Against this background, leaders are not able to hold all of the information they need to inform their decision-making processes in the same way that they could in the more stable Age of Deference. They need to hear all of the ideas and information from all parts of the organisation, no matter how big or small, and they need people to be on-board and able to act quickly when sudden change occurs.

Deference gets in the way of all of this. It silences people who are further down the hierarchy and stifles their ideas. It prevents challenge to those in charge so that potential risks and problems are not addressed, and it kills engagement. Most of all it allows employees to transfer responsibility for the success of the organisation upwards, and in these fast moving times we need all hands and minds on deck.

How to hasten the death of deference

So how can we dismantle deference structures in our organisations? Here’s a four-point plan.

  1. Get rid of all of the symbols that support deference - the bigger desks, the positional privileges, the titles, the dress codes etc. Make the environment more open with plenty of spaces for people to work collaboratively. Imagine you are a new joiner at your organisation. What do you see that signals the organisation’s position on deference?
  2. Revisit the culture of the organisation and examine what is expected from employees – the degree of openness or forthrightness that is encouraged, how an honest mistake is treated, the level of authenticity that is sought from individuals, the words that you use and how you speak and think together etc. You can’t expect change to happen without taking into account the powerful impact of organisational culture and the psychological contract that sits behind it.
  3. Skill employees up so that you can move executive powers downwards and outwards.   Communicate all of the parameters clearly and let people use their ingenuity to work within them. As leaders, set ‘min spec’ rules and allow colleagues the freedom to operate. Organisations that trust their people to deal with issues quickly build better trust with stakeholders and are more resilient.
  4. Work on increasing employee engagement – this is really what this is all about.

So to return to the beleaguered CEO of Mozilla, while I doubt that he can see much to recommend the 'death of deference', I think that there is a happy ending to this story. Mozilla’s commitment to equality is well known and no doubt is a large part of the reason why people choose to work there and clients choose their services. Had Mozilla not acted in line with their espoused principles then those people may well have chosen to go elsewhere, causing damage to the company. I can’t help thinking that the death of deference has done Mozilla a huge favour in preserving the highly valued integrity of the company.

Lisa Sofianos is a coach on the Clore Social Leadership Programme and a Director of Robin Ryde Consulting Ltd. She was the researcher for Never Mind the Bosses; Hastening the Death of Deference for Business Success, Robin Ryde, published by Wiley. She has co-authored a new book to be published by Kogan Page in October called Creating Authentic Organizations; Bringing Meaning and Engagement Back to Work with Robin Ryde. 

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