Does holacracy stifle humanness at work?

Does holacracy stifle humanness at work?

When I began working with a company that operated as a holacracy two months ago, many people looked at me quizzically. They expressed concern that they didn’t think I would like holacracy because it was more focussed on process than humanness. As Founder of The Human Leaders, a platform that seeks to promote and inspire humanness at work I was keen to understand whether these comments bore any truth.

Why did I join a holacracy?

You know when something happens in your life and it feels like it was just meant to be? …That’s how I came to join a holacracy. I had heard about the movement but knew little about it until I stumbled upon Evolving Organisation’s website. I was immediately drawn to everything they were saying and the next thing I knew I was filling in an online application form to join their pool. The founder contacted me the next day and we booked in a Skype conversation that week.

The work that I do for The Human Leaders focuses on identifying the skills and qualities that new paradigm leaders need. I have interviewed conscious leaders around the world and created a manifesto to promote and share the attributes that are needed in the world today. I founded a community based in London called ResponsiveLeaders in January 2015 and have run several meet ups to explore the personal behaviours that we all aspire to but that we tend to leave at home when we go to work.

It has been a fascinating time for me as I have been exploring the challenges that leaders face in addressing their own conscious awareness. I have experienced how crucial it is for the leader of the organisation to be committed to bringing humanness into the workplace. I have observed how frustrating it is for those who are trying to bring about positive change when they come up against strong resistance from above. I have also seen how influential the processes are that we have put in place in our businesses and how these processes along with an organisation’s culture can prevent individuals bringing their whole selves to work.

So when I spoke to Nick Osborne in his role as recruiter for EO I began talking to him about how interesting it is to me that I have been focussing on people’s individual attributes as being the driving factor to influence positive change. What holacracy does is focus on the structure and processes of an organisation as the driving factor. Holacracy then relies on the individuals within that organisation to step up in terms of their own behaviour and responses.

From this point of view it was an absolute no-brainer for me to join a holacracy. It can be extraordinarily challenging to open your heart and find the courage to be the first to step up and behave with conscious awareness. Holacracy offers an alternative approach, where discipline and structure is introduced so the collective has to step up and behave differently. If you don’t bring your whole self to work within a holacracy, the organisation will move forward with or without you. Within a holacracy, the collective and the individual share the power and once you experience this in action many of the barriers to humanness at work disappear.

Early Impressions

From the early days I was pretty excited to be part of a holacracy. The words of caution that I heard from others made me even more curious to get involved. From the outset I couldn’t wait to get going… I was invited to energise certain roles within EO but had the freedom to accept or decline these roles. Once I accepted, I had autonomy to energise my work how I wanted to, providing I worked within the realms of the accountabilities for each role that were clearly defined for me. I was even able to change the accountabilities of my role and amend, add or remove them through the process of the governance meeting that is held fortnightly.

This was all music to my ears, I work best when I have the freedom and responsibility to make my own decisions and so far, holacracy was ticking off a number of the attributes that are so important to me in The Human Leaders manifesto. So where were the concerns coming from? Why was I being warned that holacracy wouldn’t allow me to be my true human self at work?

The most common aggravation that I hear people mention in relation to holacracy is the disciplined meetings that are central to making holacracy work. A few weeks into my partnership at EO, I began to understand why. In the early days, meetings within holacracy feel a little like being back at school. There are times when you are invited to contribute and there are times when you are not allowed to talk. Responding freely to what someone else has said is generally not allowed and decisions are made at the end of the process whether you have more to contribute or not.

I felt very restricted by this process in the early days and it didn’t help that I was learning ‘on the job’ and was making mistakes. I wanted to say something in response to what someone else had contributed but I had already had my turn to speak and wasn’t able to say any more. This was definitely not what I signed up for… I wanted to work within an organisation where my voice was heard, not restricted!

The Jury’s Out

In recent articles that I have read about holacracy it seems like the jury is out. Maybe this is because as a society we have a tendency to be cautious about something new? For example, in an article about how the American company Zappos has responded to implementing holacracy, the key message seemed to be that 14% of the workforce had left as a result. I have also read stories that implied that implementing holacracy into your organisation was harder work than it was worth.

I’m not an expert in change management but my impression is that overhauling your company’s entire structure and the processes that influence how things get done is going to be time-consuming no matter what you put in place. I’m also pleased to note that the same article that focussed on Zappos staff retention made reference to the fact that we don’t actually know if those staff departures were a good or bad thing or even if their departure was a result of holacracy or not.

One of the more optimistic comments that I read echoes my own feelings towards holacracy; “I can’t imagine going back to our old way of working”.

No going back

Having experienced a few more tactical and governance meetings, I have now not only adjusted to the holacracy ways of working, I am totally hooked. I occasionally have flashbacks to the endless debates that often ended in no decision being made where I have worked in the past. Or I reflect on tensions that were never resolved primarily because there was no collective who was responsible or able to resolve them.

From being in a position where humanness appeared to have been replaced by procedure, I am now experiencing an organisation where there is trust, courage and open heartedness. Differences are valued because there is space for them to be heard. The loudest voice cannot dominate a decision because the collective has responsibility for things that effect the organisation as a whole.

I still have more to learn when it comes to holacracy and confess to not having read the entire 38-page constitution. What I do know is that I am working within an organisation that respects my opinion, values my work and responds to the rapidly changing demands of it’s industry. What could be more human than that?