Principles and Principalities
Success on any major scale requires you to accept responsibility… in the final analysis, the one quality that all successful people have… is the ability to take on responsibility.
- Michael Korda
Let’s be very clear, I’m really opinionated on how people should behave when they have been given a responsibility whether it be in the form of a job title or if it’s in an after work charity. So keep that in mind as I explain how I view gatekeeping vs acting in a principled manner. I view any job title as more of a set of responsibilities versus permissions. I view any position as a way to serve. I skew everything I do through the lense of making people’s lives better (or at least trying)
Gatekeeping - the activity of controlling, and usually limiting, general access to something.
There are several ways that gatekeeping can arise in an organization. A title, a role, a responsibility. It’s very easy to default to controlling who can do what in your domain. It’s how you ensure that everyone is acting as you’d like them to act.
But there are serious problems with gatekeeping, not only on the culture of a company that has gatekeepers, but also on the ability to get work done. When a gatekeeper is put in place you have an instant bottleneck for any workflow you might currently have. And then you have to build process around the gate to verify that the appropriate work went through the correct gatekeeper. This magnifies as you get more and more gatekeepers. In many ways we can treat gatekeepers as proxies for bottlenecks.
Failure comes only when we forget our ideals and objectives and principles. Jawaharlal Nehru
Every title, role or position can be boiled down into a set of principles. Principles in this case being a rule that governs behavior. So for example, I spent a lot of my career as a software engineer. My basic principles were to create quality software that made people’s lives better. It was pretty easy to abide by that. As a manager now, my position and my principles have changed somewhat. I now spend a lot of my time around building people and keeping the organization healthy. Because of this change in role I’ve become more aware of how people behave. I’ve noticed that a lot of the problems we face as an organization stem from gatekeeping.
The interesting juxtaposition of acting under principles versus gatekeeping only became clear to me recently as I was conversing with a co-worker. He was explaining how he didn’t mind that I was stepping into his domain because he operated under a set of principles and as long as I was helping with those principles, there was no problem on his end with me doing what I was doing. He viewed his job and/or title, not as a principality but as a set of principles he cared for. Because of this he was more than willing to have help.
If you stop and think about your current role as a set of principles how does that change the way you interact with other people in the organization?
Let me give you an example. In my current role as a manager in engineering I abide by these principles:
- Foster employee growth and performance
- Proactively handle issues with people and the department
- Drive clarity in communication
This means that anytime anyone wants to do anything that affects any of those areas, I’m not a gatekeeper, I’m a facilitator. Any attempt that furthers those principles is awesome whether it comes from me or from someone else.
One of the big benefits to seeing your role this way is that this method scales much better than the gatekeeping method. If someone with a different perspective sees an issue in an area that would traditionally be in your domain there’s little reason to push back on them helping. It becomes less of a “this is my job” and more of a “how can I help” conversation. This in turn fosters trust and cooperation.
Effects on Culture
In a gatekeeping culture silos are really easy to erect. There are a lot of reasons that these can happen. I’ve often seen them happen as a response to a mistake or for lack of trust. They can also happen to ensure that a step in a process happens. The problem is that this can lead to “not-my-problem” syndrome. Where you avoid looking out for an issue because it’s not your problem. This is fine until the gatekeeper has a bad day. Then more process and more gatekeeping will likely need to be enacted to ensure that the error doesn’t happen again.
Contrast that with a culture where principles are king. If silos aren’t necessary because you believe in fostering good principles, it’ll be hard for people to get into an apathetic state. Trust changes the behavior of people in a lot of interesting ways. It fosters open communication where potential problems should surface much earlier. It fosters collaboration which fosters friendships. This creates a sort of feedback loop. If you can get enough of this sort of behavior in a system you’ll end up with a really healthy culture.
Where I work (a company called Nav) our leaders have been actively trying to foster a culture of trust. A lot of ways that has historically manifested itself is through Principle Driven Work. People at the company view their jobs more as principles than principalities. It means that if you see a blind spot you can approach someone whose primary responsibility it is and help them drive a good solution. It’s probably why Nav is such an amazing company. It’s also why we’re able to actively solve problems better, we have more eyes from more angles. Think about what that means.
Try this little experiment. Spend 15 minutes thinking about what principles drive your current role. Write them down. Then think about ways people around you support you or could support you better in those areas. It’s amazing how many people around you could truly help you be better. And even more amazing is how many people you could help as this idea is adopted.
Every company tries to define itself by a series of Why’s, they come up with a nice statement that defines what they do, what they are trying to accomplish and how they think they should behave. At Nav we follow a set of values that guide every decision we make. It works super well for us as a company. Why wouldn’t a set of values work just as well for a position?
The next time someone approaches you with a problem that feels like it should be you doing it, ask yourself: “What would I lose if I let them take the lead since they cared enough to look into it?”
I feel strongly that every organizational culture would change dramatically if they took this approach. The guiding principles of each role will reveal common areas of interest/concern. You’ll find allies you never knew you had. You’ll have more insight into the health of the organization, into the well-being of the product and the happiness of the people you work with.