Provoking thought

No More Power Hierarchies

Every performance review cycle I die a little.

However, even death is an opportunity — as my grandma used to say. Actually, she didn’t say that as far as I know. Maybe she should have. It’s the type of wisdom that grandmas tend to share.

But I digress.

My constant struggles and failures with performance reviews make it one of my best sources of insight. Failure is a choice, and thus far I’ve always managed to extract value out of every disaster.

My worst round of performance reviews happened a year or two ago. I describe this in the (draft) introduction chapter of my in-progress “No More” book. It was the performance review cycle that kicked off a multi-year process of re-evaluating common (management) practices. That re-evaluation process hopefully ultimately results in me collecting all of that thinking into a book. So, if you’re excited that I’m writing a book, you ought to thank the horrors of performance management.

Since that time, I’ve been making little steps forward every cycle. For instance, half a year ago, another performance review cycle resulted in targeting a particularly problematic part of reviews: the rating.

And then, last month, just in time for holiday cheer, I completed another performance review cycle. Most of my performance conversations went all right. Note that my bar for “all right” is fairly low — I’m happy when things don’t (visibly) blow up.

However, there’s always that one exception. That one that ends up dominating your Christmas break. And indeed, that happened this December as well. Merry Christmas everybody!

Nevertheless, it’s January. I’m still here. After a lot of musing, reading of books, blogs, and watching of some videos — my usual solutions to everything — I think I’m on the verge of yet another big leap forward.

I think that I finally pinpointed the core of the problem that I have with performance reviews: they are an exercise of power.

And I don’t like using power.

Reflecting on my own origin story, the reason I went into management is two-fold:

  1. I was fascinated by the people aspects of engineering (computers are predictable; people are crazy — no offense).
  2. I was looking for ways to increase my impact, to make more of a difference than I could just typing code.

Over the years I’ve managed teams of various sizes, ranging from just a few to over a hundred. To be honest, I find the prospect of managing ever larger teams to be exciting, because of the impact factor. If you’re at the top of a large organizational pyramid, you get to make a difference on that entire pyramid! How impactful am I? I am 100 people impactful!

But then there’s this awkward aspect: being called “the boss.”

What does it means to be the boss? It means you’re ultimately accountable and responsible for your pyramid. And to enable that, you are put “in charge.” You are granted with power.

In the good old times, and in modern day “less sophisticated” organizations, that power is wielded through sheer force. “You do as I say or I shoot you, capiche?” We may occasionally joke about this among fellow managers: “oh, this is not going well, it’s time to exercise the whip!” Hilarious stuff.

No, in “sophisticated” organizations we have more subtle tools at our disposal. But let’s not kid ourselves, they’re still a tour de force.

We get to decide who’s in, who’s out, and who moves up. As your boss, I decide how much you earn, whether you get that promotion, bonus or if you even still have a job. As a result, you will do what I want you to do. It may be more subtle than a gun, it still exercises power.

Performance reviews are probably the most in-your-face instances of these power tools, beside firing people of course.

Most days of the year we work hard to empower people. We figure out ways to encourage bottom-up initiative. We try to make our teams self organizing. We try to practice things like leading by context rather than through control. When introduced to a spouse at a company party, we say things like “yes yes, technically I’m his boss, but that’s not how we really operate.” And in one-on-ones we emphasize that we need to work as partners, not as master and underling.

Ever wonder why we feel the need to work on this so much? Ever wonder why this doesn’t come naturally?

The answer is simple: we’re trying to compensate for the forces of the power hierarchy. The only reason we can “empower people” is because we hold the power, and get to decide whether or not to hand it over — to delegate it — to people. Delegation and empowerment are power moves.

After spending most of the year establishing this sense of partnership and “we’re in this together” feeling, we get to crush all that with a performance review. Then we make explicit who’s boss. Who’s the judge. Who decides whether you did a good job or not, get a raise or not, a promotion or not. We effectively say: yes yes, we’re all buddy buddy, but ultimately I hold power over you. We may attempt to paper over this fact as much as we like, and I for sure try. But it’s near impossible to hide what’s going on.

I am not interested in having power over others, let alone use it.

I have no desire to be “the boss.”

This may not be the case for everybody, perhaps even you. If having power over others is your goal: no judgment, but this may be a topic for you to discuss with your psychologist. Where do you think this need come from? Something to reflect on.

I always saw having to be “the boss” as an inevitable part of the game. If you want to have a bigger impact through people, you have to start climbing that management ladder, that power hierarchy. That’s how the world works.

However, this Christmas break I learned that this assumption may be wrong. Perhaps, power hierarchies are not as inevitable, or even natural, as I thought they were.

Over the last week or two I’ve started to read about a topic that I’ll refer to as “self management.” Self management is somewhat of a loaded term, but I have yet to find a reasonable alternative. While this concept has lots of different incarnations, ultimately the aim is to run organizations without relying on power hierarchies. Indeed, No More Power Hierarchies.

Here are some books on the topic I’ve queued for myself. I haven’t read all of these yet:

Some of these have been on my (virtual) book shelf for some time, for instance the Holacracy and Regenerative Business ones. However, when I encountered both of them earlier I dismissed them because they seemed very all or nothing. You (usually as the CEO of a company) have to flip the whole company up-side-down in one go, or not attempt this at all. Get rid of all the managers, freedom to the people, viva la revolución! I was not in the position to start do that. Also intuitively, anything ending with -cracy scares me a bit — and there’s a lot of that going on: humanocracy, holacracy, sociocracy — yikes.

As I started plowing through all this material, I started to realize two things:

The first is that there are different types of hierarchies, and it’s worth distinguishing them:

Natural hierarchies are all about people listening to others because they “look up” to them. People consider somebody an authority in some area purely because of the experience, knowledge, and skill they bring to the table.

These hierarchies are usually very contextual. You may consider me an authority on the excessive use of the em-dash (you would be right), but not on the correct use of CSS selectors (again, you would be right).

Natural hierarchies are cool. They emerge naturally, disappear naturally, they are fair. There is no pressure to “move up” in the natural hierarchy, you just do or don’t purely based on merit. Natural hierarchies do not require explicit design nor management. Nobody is keeping score.

Power hierarchies are “I hold power over you” hierarchies. I am your boss, you do as I say. Sure, it’s great to attempt to rely on a manager’s natural authority as much as possible and that tends to be encouraged. However, ultimately we talk with our power tools: again, as the boss I decide who to hire, fire, promote, and I decide on your salary.

Power hierarchies are designed. They come with org charts, titles, ranks, levels and associated compensation and benefits. The signal to everybody is clear: navigate your path to the top. More power, more money, more prestige.

The idea of a meritocracy is to merge natural hierarchies into power hierarchies. Ideally, we promote natural leaders to become managers. We promote people with more expert knowledge to more senior positions. This is pretty hard to do well though, we’re human after all. This is where politics enter the scene. People sometimes move up because they look good. It’s not always the best strategy to be good, sometimes it’s more effective to look it, or to be buddy-buddy with the right people.

The idea behind self management is to eliminate power hierarchies. Not only for the “moral” reasons I started out with, but also for efficiency reasons. Running organizations using power hierarchies is very expensive. Not just in terms of management overhead (like me), but because the resulting bureaucracy slows everything down and may not necessarily produce the best possible results either.

Obviously, removing power hierarchies cannot mean a free-for-all. Management still needs to happen, but needs to be solved differently. Organizations run this way heavily rely on self regulation: teams collectively decide on what success looks like, and collectively monitor and correct their way there. It’s no trivial feat, but for sure an interesting one.

I think the reason this idea resonates so strongly with me is that it’s a direct response to many of my the things I’ve tried to raise with my _No More_’s, to name a few:

I found that literature on self management identifies exactly the same problems that I do, and has solutions to address them. Sometimes pretty much what I came to, but not always.

The second thing I found in my self management journey is that there is space for nuance after all. We can be somewhat pragmatic in applying self management. In fact very few utopian examples of full self management exist. There are a lot of practices in this space that make a lot of sense even if you’re not willing to go “all the way.” In fact, there’s probably an incremental path to be taken.

I will likely dive into some of these practices over the next few months and will try to implement some of then when I see the opportunity to.

Good times. As is usually the case after performance reviews. I’m looking forward to the next cycle!