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A leader’s job is to ensure that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It seems it should go without saying that belittling each part is not a good way to achieve that goal. But too often bosses are not subject to checks and balances in management and attempt to gain power by minimizing and bullying the people who work for them.
Most workplaces allow this by giving managers up and down the org chart unchecked authority to make decisions that have profound consequences for their employees.
What Happens Without Checks and Balances in Management?
Traditionally, managers dole out or withhold resources; they decide who gets hired, fired, or promoted; they determine bonuses, who gets the plum assignments, who gets stuck with the grunt work, and so on.
When managers make all these decisions unilaterally, it is too risky for employees to challenge bias, prejudice or bullying, let alone to report harassment or discrimination; and so harassment and discrimination are more likely to happen.
Poor decisions are made. Employees are robbed of their agency. Managers are not held accountable. Results suffer, and so do employees.
If you don’t design your management systems for justice, you’re going to get systemic injustice — and hurt your ability to achieve results.”
The answer is not to eliminate all hierarchy. Hierarchy is necessary for successful collaboration, to coordinate the efforts of employees, to help employees work better together. But when hierarchy comes with unchecked power, the predictable result is coercion.
None of this is inevitable. It happens as a result of the choices leaders make about management systems and processes.
You can bake checks and balances — management systems in which leaders are held accountable for doing their jobs well rather than given unilateral decision-making authority — into your organizational design, or you can design a system that creates mini-dictators.
If you do the latter, the unchecked power you’ve given managers makes discrimination and harassment, as well as failure, much more likely.
It’s worth repeating: if you don’t design your management systems for justice, you’re going to get systemic injustice — and hurt your ability to achieve results.
Much has been written about “empowering” employees. But there’s something arrogant about that framing. It implies that employees are lacking in the capacity to do great work and that the powerful leader must bestow skills upon them.
When really the problem is a management bureaucracy that has robbed people of their innate capacity for work and growth.
The goal of leadership is not to treat people as though they are lacking, but to recognize what they already have, and to create systems that unleash their best efforts rather than robbing them of their agency.
In other words, the most important thing leaders can do is to stop disempowering employees by giving too much unilateral authority to managers. Remember, it’s not your job as a leader to “give people a voice.” They already have a voice.
Rather, it’s your job to make sure their boss is not silencing them, or punishing them for speaking up; it’s your job as a leader to ensure managers are held accountable for soliciting criticism and rewarding the candor when they get it.
Checks and Balances in Management Support Speaking Truth to Power
Research explains the reasons limiting the power of individuals so that teamwork replaces old command and control structures is so important for good performance:
- Cohesive, empowered teams will outperform a collection of individuals on a wide range of tasks.
- High-functioning teams tend to make better decisions than high-functioning individuals.
- Teams where everyone speaks up perform better than teams dominated by a tyrannical manager or a “superstar.”
- Homogeneous teams tend to make poorer decisions than their diverse counterparts do.
- When teamwork replaces command and control, better decisions get made.
The best way to make sure leaders at your company are not disempowering their employees is to create a system of checks and balances in management.
This means that no one person in an organization, including its CEO, should be able to hire, fire, promote, or pay another person without input from a team. And that team should be able to override the decision of the individual manager.