Ending the discussion

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By Tony Samson

DEMOCRATIC PRINCIPLES in traditionally autocratic hierarchies like corporations are always a challenge to implement. A participative management style requires a lot of meetings. Decisions are arrived at by getting all or a majority to discuss an issue and buy into the agreed course of action. The approach involves consultations with all those affected, which in big decisions like parking assignments, reporting relationships, acquisitions, and inclusion in foreign trips involve emotions and lots of raised voices.

There are difficulties with the participative approach (one clerk, one vote) when it comes to issues with unpleasant outcomes for certain stakeholders as in the matter of headcount reduction (any volunteers?). It is unrealistic to expect objective inputs or even a calm discussion over such contentious topics. Also, the level of information and quality of insights are not evenly distributed. Still, employees can be consulted on office layout and canteen offerings: Should we have more carrots, and less sticks? Compromise solution: carrot sticks for all.

Large organizations, with hierarchies already much flattened by restructuring and the regrouping of large departments into separate companies to improve the cosmetics of the bottom line, make consensus-building difficult. Too many people must coordinate their schedules to have the town hall gatherings for the problem-solving exercise.

Is the democratic approach feasible in small organizations of less than thirty people?

The small company comprises more than 90% of registered enterprises. There are very few organizations with over a thousand employees. Still, even for the small company in a single location, calling a meeting to discuss company problems (that’s how even neutral issues are viewed) is even more of a hassle.

Multi-tasking is too prevalent in smaller companies with job descriptions thrown out the window — what do you mean this is not part of your job description? You don’t have one. So how can anyone rope in enough employees to give their inputs when they’re “busy with the clients?” Few will vote for meetings after office hours or on weekends, unless this is in Bora. And then, the break times are longer.

With the difficulty of a participative approach, autocratic management is no longer as anathema as it used to be. MacGregor’s Theory X and Y in the sixties, for management styles leaning towards despots (X) and nice guys who can’t decide (Y), may no longer be appropriate in a fast-changing management scene, where disruption is routine.

There are issues that are too complicated anyway with only a few knowledgeable employees in the field. Issues like the selection of a software system for the network is just not open to uninformed opinions.

Efficient organizations, like the military and religious orders, form small task forces to evaluate contentious issues, be it guerrilla warfare or the high turnover of priests. The study group then comes out with its confidential report, submitted to the boss.

The once fashionable quality circles of Japan were successfully used in manufacturing automobiles and cameras. They rest on the premise that line people, understanding the process intimately, can contribute to its improvement. This approach may still be applicable in some sectors. But the growing complexity of the service industry reduces the availability of expertise and limits the number of resource persons on most subjects. Then, there is the rise of artificial intelligence to combat genuine stupidity. Thus, any discussion needed for consensus spends an inordinate amount of time just explaining what the issue is in 26 slides.

The best model for decision-making is the family. It’s easy enough to call a meeting of two, or even getting the children in. Should we sell the house and just move to a small condo unit now that the kids have migrated? This discussion is not as simple as it sounds, as it affects lifestyle changes and where to send for laundry. Still, it is possible to get intelligent votes on it. In the end, even if there is no deadlock or even when there is a consensus favoring one option, someone ends the discussion. Let’s wrap this up — prepare to move.

But the family model of consensus-building does not seem to work even in family corporations. There are at that point too many non-family participants and the rise of factions.

In practice, even large companies have individuals at the top who have loud voices. They don’t bother with the fiction of debate. And if somebody raises an objection, do they even deign to reply? They just end the discussion with a parting note — I’ll send out the memo this afternoon.


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda