Activating Agency & Accountability in Your Organization

By Jeff Klein

In the early 1990s I moved to Santa Fe, NM to work with some friends who were building Seeds of Change, the organic seed (and now food) company. Early on in my work there I became responsible for managing the warehouse, where the seeds were stored, packed and shipped, and where orders were processed. Its staff, about a couple dozen people, was the largest cohort in the company. As it turns out, when I paid my first visit there, about a month after my arrival, I discovered that no one from the main office (which was across town) had provided any guidance, management or support for many months, and the facility was disorganized, the team demoralized and the overall energy and productivity were low.

When I sat down with the two lead managers, Mary and Marcia, both of whom had significant experience in business and in gardening, they had a list of about thirty questions or issues they wanted to address, which we went through one item at a time. When they laid out the first issue, I asked them “what do you think?” and they had a great solution to the issue. I said, “Sounds like a great idea, go for it.” As we went down the list I asked the same question every time, and they had a proposed solution every time. And, with a few exceptions, when I had some questions and we engaged in a conversation about solutions, I responded, “sounds like a great solution. Go for it.”

The next week when I returned, they reported out on the progress of their actions, and had another list with around twenty issues. We went through the same process, with the same results. The next week, the list had under ten issues. And the following week, just a few. Within a month, the warehouse space was completely reorganized. Roles and responsibilities had shifted. The team met daily and was truly self-organizing. And everyone was stoked (that is, happy in their work).

My orientation with them essentially said “I trust that you know what to do, and you know where your authority ends. Go for it.” And they did.

The idea and practice of Servant Leadership has a long tradition and, as Stephen Covey observes, “Trust is the highest form of human motivation. It brings out the very best in people. But it takes time and patience, and it doesn’t prelude the necessity to train and develop people so that their competency can rise to the level of that trust.” In this case, they had the skill and experience to fully embrace the trust. Giving people the permission, authority and accountability to bring their creativity, attention, energy and agency to work generally yields positive results.

Twenty years later, I am learning about and beginning to work with Holacracy, which builds in agency and accountability into the business system rather than relying on a servant leader to give permission to people. (What happens if the servant leader has a bad day or leaves her job and is replaced with someone who leads differently?)

This is the principal approach I have taken with my daughter as well. When she has a question – homework, relationship issue, or most anything – before I give her an answer, I ask her “what do you think?”

Might be a good approach to life and the workplace. What do you think?

Please join us for conversation on our Facebook page.

Jeff Klein is CEO of Working for Good, a company that activates, produces and facilitates mission-based, Stakeholder Engagement Marketing™ campaigns and Conscious Culture development programs.

Jeff is a trustee and member of the executive committee of Conscious Capitalism, Inc. and authored the award-winning book, Working for Good: Making a Difference While Making a Living. He is producing the first annual Being Human 2012 event, March 24, 2012, Palace of Fine Arts Theater, San Francisco, and hosts a weekly web-radio program called It’s Just Good Business.

[Image credit: Kurt Komoda, Flickr]

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