Want less authoritarian structures? Not without communication skills!

There are two kinds of people I interact with: those who are convinced that better organizations make better people. And those who are convinced that better people make better organizations. The answer is probably — as usual — somewhere in the realm of both-and.

Where do “better” people and being “better” organizations overlap? I see in my work that even the best organizational framework is not worth much without good communication skills. Why? Let me tell you.

Authoritarian structures?

First of all, what do I mean by “authoritarian” organizations? I mean organizations with structures that give some people power over others. That includes autocratic structures (tyranny by the few), some forms of simple majority vote (tyranny of the majority) and some forms of consensus (tyranny of the minority). I know that sociocratic organizations (consent-based — no tyranny) are non-authoritarian. I have not formed an opinion about other systems as I have not experienced them enough first hand. So let’s go with that.

My preferred form of communication framework is Non-Violent Communication (NVC, coined by Marshall Rosenberg). In my own ultra-short summary, NVC says that:

  1. We all have needs beyond food and shelter that are universal needs (e.g. connection, harmony, integrity, safety, clarity, contribution, play)
  2. How we feel is determined by how well we are able to meet our needs (e.g. we might get sad when our need for connection is not met)
  3. Observing the world around us, our own and other people’s feelings helps us understand what needs are at play, and needs consciousness informs what strategies might be helpful to meet those needs.
  4. Everything people do, they do to meet needs. (Their strategies might be ineffective or harmful to others but the underlying needs are always universally human.) We can make requests and people will do what works for them (unless they are threatened!).

What I want to lay out here are some ways our communication skills and self-governance interdepend. I don’t think governance based on shared power can be very successful without good communication skills. (I also think that good communication skills without a good governance system do not cut it but that’s not the point here.)

So, how are good communication skills relevant to self-governance?

1. Creating clarity with needs consciousness

In a non-authoritarian, self-governed organization, teams have to create structures together, for themselves. Where there used to be a hierarchy of bosses telling everyone what to do, there is now the willingness to collaborate and to create the structures we want.

Tensions come from lack of clarity

Most tensions and frictions in organizations come from lack of clarity. Lack of clarity creates open space for frustration and people’s projections, and they tend to fill them by projecting bad intentions onto others. What I mean is something like this: why does my co-worker take the best parking spot every single morning?! I am sure he does that on purpose! He is just selfish and he does not care about me.

Instead of going to blame when always the same topic always stirs up confusion and frustration, feelings of frustration are a sign that it is time to put all needs on the table for mutual understanding and exploration. A co-created and consented-to decision will create clarity to settle the issue. That’s what policy is: creating clarity in places where tensions were.

But then there are ….feelings

That sounds so easy! Observe feelings, express needs, agree on a strategy — done! So why isn’t it easy? Because without awareness, things don’t work that way. What happens instead: people sense — or fear — that their needs might go unconsidered, and they either get louder or they turn silent. Neither getting louder or turning silent, however, is helpful to create clear structures that work for everyone. How will we know what someone needs if they are ticked off and won’t tell us? And, how can we hear what someone needs when that person yells at me?

I am not excusing destructive behavior or lack of willingness to step up. I am simply accepting these kinds of behaviors as a fact of human nature (or, more, our current culture). Instead of judging that, let’s talk about what we can do to work with it.

Breaking the downward spiral

And that’s the point: only good communication can break the downward spiral of blame leading to lack of constructive information. Both sides are fully responsible and need to learn to

  • speak so their needs can be understood even when they are angry or insecure.
  • listen so they understand others’ needs even when those people express their needs very silently or in a very loud way.

Speaking and listening without judgement, that’s what NVC training is. Do it!

If we think our feelings are absolute truth and the end of all exploration, we will not get beyond them. But as soon as all needs are on the table, it is usually very easy to be creative and find solutions that create clarity to smooth out self-governance. Good self-governance can only be successful when people have the skills to talk with respect and have the needs consciousness to reflect on why feelings came up in the first place.

2. Gaining access to more information

The secret strength of an organization of equals governing themselves is that we can harvest much more information than an authoritarian organization. In an oppressive culture, no one will go out of their way to support the organization with their ideas. People will just shut down or work to rule.

In any organization, the people who do work are experts on their own work. They know best what might contribute to improving their work, and they know what obstacles are keeping them from contributing in the best possible way. It is easy to see that having access to that information about obstacles and ideas for improvements will contribute to a successful organization. Why do people hold back on that information? A few of the reasons are: lack of emotional safety (“I doubt that my experience be taken seriously”) and lack of confidence that employees’ well-being is a priority (“No one cares anyway”).

Asking for information

How can you hear what is going on for the people in your team? Let me be clear: I am not in the business of telling you what to say so you can maximize information from your team. I am in the business of inspiring you what you can think so you can maximize the information that your team volunteers. My NVC mentor used to say: you can say what you want — what you are thinking is clearly written on your forehead anyway. Formulas don’t work.

The mindset that supports trust is to shift from blame to curiosity. If you don’t understand why someone would choose a certain strategy, i.e. when you notice yourself thinking “Why would they do that?! That’s so stupid!”, you probably don’t have enough information. The only way to get that information is to ask. Just assuming that the other person is probably just trying to meet a need (without even having to know what need it is) already means you will be more open to taking in what is going on for that other person. Your genuine curiosity will be written on your forehead — if it is real. The message will be “ I assume you are a competent human being trying to meet your needs. Help me understand what your need is and then let’s talk about how the strategy is working for you — and me.” NVC training can help you let that mindset sink in and make it second nature.

Receiving feedback

The same is true when you receive feedback. If you are stuck in self-blame and shame, you will not be able to see the nugget of information you are being offered when someone gives you feedback. Release yourself from the burden of self-blame, become curious about yourself and how you are perceived by others, and you will be more open to see. That willingness to hear, also, will be written on your forehead and people will notice that you are approachable and tell you more.

With more information and feedback to each other, your decisions will be more grounded in reality and your policy and operational decisions will work better for the people in your team.

By the way, it’s not only a double win, it is also much more fun and interesting than looking down on people’s behavior or beating yourself up.

3. Practice it till you make it

Most of us grew up in an authoritarian culture. Parenting, education and most workplaces are authoritarian — a because-I-said-so culture. I literally had a teacher tell me in 8th grade that things would be easier in school if I stopped thinking! (I remember I cracked up laughing because I loved the irony of that statement — and then I realized no one else was laughing.)

We live in an oppressive culture and that’s not funny at all. Oppression and inequality is so big, it takes my breath away every time I think about it. We shield ourselves by justifying inequality (“that’s just how things work”) because the painful reality seems too big to take in.

What does that mean for organizations, in particular self-governed organizations? It means that even if we create heaven on earth, the patterns and pain in people’s minds are still there and they are real. The patterns surface when we resort to oppressive behavior. The patterns surface when we resort to rebellion or to self-destructive self-talk when we perceive someone as oppressive. Power-dynamics are everywhere and we all have internalized tons of it.

That means that even if a perfect organization with equally shared power and full compassion in every moment existed, the shadows of our culture are still very present. You cannot pretend that it’s enough to pretend stripping all power issues off an organization. It’s in how people speak, what they have learned to give themselves permission to say, how much they believe they can shape their futures, how much experience they have had of actually having a say. You cannot “just” leave all that behind.

That means: just being equals in decision-making is not enough. Oppression will still be there, the subtext of everything.

I actually had a discussion yesterday that illustrates that. A man about 20 older than me called me cute. [Imagine me shaking my head in disbelief while I write this!] I told him, very calmly, that I did not want to be called cute. He asked (rather genuinely, it seemed to me) what was wrong with the word cute. Calmly, I reminded him that cute can easily be understood as small or inferior, and he said “oh, that’s just how you hear it”.

Yes, just like him, I wish we could just wipe centuries of trauma from sexism away like that. But we can’t. It is too big. And this is just one of the many ways people have been oppressed. We can choose to ignore that fact but I don’t think ignoring a reality that has such a mightly force on virtually everyone makes for realistic planning. Being proactive about it seems like a better strategy to me. That’s why NVC or similar frameworks around inner work are absolutely essential for governance as equals. If we miss that step of acknowledging people’s pain, even an organization based on shared power will be superficial and hollow.

By the way, that does not mean the pain that is stirred up is your fault. Being responsible for pain and knowing about it are different. Here is a great Marshall Rosenberg quote.

You need to know what is going on for other people. If you don’t ask because you are afraid of witnessing people’s anger and frustration, you choose to ignore their reality. If you listen and have the courage to take in their anger, that’s the first step towards collective healing.

NVC (and egalitarian governance system like sociocracy) don’t create harmonious groups in a perfect world. But they create safe islands where we can practice what it will be like to be equals. That’s what I mean by the heading of this section: practice until you make it. We need to both work through the pain created by oppression and create organizations that are based on truly shared power — in decision-making, in our communication and organizational culture. Governance as equals has to be practiced and practiced and practiced until we can start believing in our minds that a world without oppression is possible.