The Good Governance Playbook
Why we can’t run an organization solely on good intentions.
A few months ago, I read Humankind by Rutger Bregman, a book that is labeled a “hopeful history.” It makes a point that I agree with: humans, pretty much across the board, act in respectable, caring ways. In a word, they act with good intentions. Yet the book sent me into a phase of despair — because if we all have good intentions, why are we in such a mess?!
It reminded me of what I learned when I was first exposed to Nonviolent Communication (NVC), which posits that everyone has a set of universal needs like connection, belonging, contribution to others, or ease. All we’re trying to do is find strategies to meet those needs. If I feel a need for connection and want to meet it, I might call a friend — likely an effective strategy. But sometimes, strategies are poor choices despite their good intentions. For example, have you ever yelled at someone because you desperately wanted to be heard and understood? It’s ineffective. And it happens. As we know from the proverb: the path to hell is paved with good intentions. So, good intentions, after all, can’t create a better world. We’re not short on good intentions.
In his book, Bregman mentions a case that has since haunted me: The reason the German army in WWII was so effective, was less about killing the people on the other side and more about wanting to protect the people left and right of themselves. They killed people out of good intentions. That messed with my world!
Am I alone in my despair around this? If we’re all already doing the best we can and things still don’t work out, is there hope for us?
This question is not only relevant to me because we all have a stake in living peacefully on this finite planet, but also because I’m a governance consultant. I see governance as all the processes that help groups make decisions — an essential piece of getting along and working things out.
Why we struggle
What I see in organizations is that conflicts often arise when there is a lack of clarity or information. For example, when we see someone do something and think what they’re doing is ‘mean’ or ‘stupid.’ We make projections about what they are doing and why. Chances are, however, that if we sat down to talk to them, we’d understand their choices. We might still disagree or be sad considering the impact of their choices, but we’d understand. That’s how more information would support our getting along.
Another source of tension in organizations is a lack of clarity about who makes what decision. Why aren’t they finally taking care of xyz? How dare they decide that xyz? That’s what lack of clarity sounds like in organizations. And while those arising conflicts might feel interpersonal, they often don’t start as interpersonal. First comes lack of information or shared reality, then comes conflict, and then it turns personal. If instead of getting upset, we could say, “oh, it looks like we’re not clear on who is taking care of this, let’s talk about that,” a lot of conflicts could be avoided.
I think we’re already the best human beings we can be. Loving more will not get us further.
Bandwidth, and being human
So why don’t we do that more consistently? I think it’s because of a lack of bandwidth — to pay attention to everyone and everything all the time, to communicate proactively and exhaustively. That’s just part of the limitations of human beings. It’s easy to miss information or clarity, and even the best intentions won’t prevent us from falling short from time to time.
So given that, I think the attempts of being ‘better human beings’ are pointless. I think we’re already the best human beings we can be. Loving more will not get us further.
I think of governance systems as a strategy to be the person I want to be — because I know I’m fallible.
Governance processes as self-chosen guardrails
But we can increase the chances of being clear, listening, and being accountable — and that’s where governance comes in. Ideally, our governance systems provide some helpful guardrails so we can have strategies in place for how we communicate, make decisions, and clarify our processes. I think of governance systems as a strategy to be the person I want to be — because I know I’m fallible.
Our downfall is not that we choose not to be kind — it’s that we disagree on what kindness looks like in practice, and can’t pay attention enough to think things through when they get muddy.
To act on the governance playbook, it has to be specific. For example, if an organization makes an agreement that everyone in the organization should be ‘kind and respectful,’ I think it lacks specificity to be actionable. What does ‘kind and respectful’ mean in specific situations? If someone is, for example, engaging in toxic call-out culture, I bet they are convinced that they are acting in support of ‘respect’ and ‘kindness.’ Because — remember — we don’t have to be reminded to be caring human beings. We already are. Our downfall is not that we choose not to be kind — it’s that we disagree on what kindness looks like in practice and that we can’t pay attention enough to think things through when they get muddy.
If we follow a good governance playbook, some of our shortcomings will be prevented thanks to the protocol — we know who to talk about what, who decides what, how to have meetings and make decisions, and how to track what needs to be done. Even better if we have a self-repairing system like sociocracy where we notice tensions, and then we go clear them up and make changes.
So that’s how I got out of my state of despair after reading that humans are good. Yes, they have good intentions. But they are also human and will drop things left and right, and then the judgy projection game begins, and trust deteriorates. But instead of appealing to people’s good intentions, my contribution to helping us all get along is to improve the playbooks — so more of our good intentions bear fruit.
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