Workplace Democracy at Brainpark

Imagine a rapidly-growing startup company where the CEO answers not only to his board of directors but also to his employees.  Mark Dowds, who founded Brainpark about a year and a half ago, decided that he only wanted to lead a company if the employees accepted his leadership.  As a result, any of the employees, including Dowds, can be removed by a vote of their coworkers.
 
WorkplaceDemocracy.com spoke with Dowds to get an inside look at how this innovative company is embracing innovation in its management practices.  Brainpark has made it a priority to democratize its policies and culture in order to develop a transparent and engaged work environment. 
 
The company conducts off-site meetings every six months to discuss Brainpark’s performance and recalibrate their strategy.  As opposed to many company strategy-setting meetings, where the CEO determine the agenda, Brainpark has adopted an ‘open agenda’ system, where each employee writes down their concerns, interests, and goals on papers which are posted on the wall.  Everyone reviews the papers and votes on which of the items are most important and will be included in the off-site agenda and strategy discussions.
 
Any of the team members can suggest potential candidates for open positions.  The job candidates are interviewed by two coworkers, and the new hires are selected collectively by Brainpark employees. 
 
Managers at Brainpark choose not to exercise their power to fire employees.  Instead, if a manager is having problems with one of their subordinates, then a team is put together to make a decision about whether the person should leave or stay with the company.
 
If anyone, including the top managers and CEO, is not pulling their own weight and delivering value to the company, their coworkers can talk to them to dicsuss the problem and to give them a chance to improve their performance.  If the person in question fails to change by a certain period of time, their colleagues can then decide to find them a replacement.
 
To help facilitate better decision-making throughout the organization, Brainpark has adopted an open book management policy, where company financial data is shared among employees, who are all granted ownership stakes in the company through a stock option program.  
 
New employees are usually very surprised when they learn about Brainpark’s innovative workplace policies, but most adapt quickly and can’t imagine working anywhere else.  The company’s outside investors strongly support its democratic practices after having witnessed their impact on the employees’ engagement and motivation levels. 
 
Brainpark, which has been named to the WorldBlu List of Most Democratic Companies, is proof that employees act like owners when they are treated like owners.


Workplace Democracy at GM and Chrysler?

There has been a lot of discussion going on about whether the workers at General Motors and Chrysler will become the owners of their respective employers and about the kind of impact that this ownership stake will have on the future of the two car manufacturers.

Without decentralizing the management structure and decision-making processes, simply turning the employees into shareholders at GM and Chrysler will have minimal impact on rectifying the core problems and overcoming the obstacles that have crippled these companies.  It is not enough for employees to hold ownership stakes if their employers still function as top-down hierarchical bureaucracies. 

Remaining innovative and competitive in today’s rapidly changing environment depends on a highly engaged and motivated workforce.  Employees can only break free from the confines of bureaucracy if they are able to act and feel like owners in the day-to-day management of the company. 

Employees will not feel like motivated owners until they are aware of the company’s goals and the ongoing progress towards those goals.  Financial and operational data should be shared freely among all employees.  In today’s information age, there is no reason to keep secrets and for executives to hoard information, even with regards to “sensitive” information like salary data.

Employees, especially those closest to the customers, need to have the power to make quick decisions autonomously, without having to wait for approvals to trickle down the management hierarchy.  Team-based, bottom-up decision making should replace the command-and-control, top-down structure that was so successful at stifling innovation, common sense, and competitiveness at GM and Chrysler.

In order for these companies to stand a chance at surviving the current crisis, General Motors and Chrysler must not limit their innovative turnaround efforts to their product and operational strategies.  They must also adopt cutting edge and creative solutions for transforming their organizational processes and culture.

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The Cost of Having a Boss

Management guru Gary Hamel provides an excellent explanation as to why only 21% of employees are highly engaged at work.  Contrary to common belief, it is not the type of job or salary level that determines the extent of one’s motivation, which is why companies such as Wegman’s Food Markets and QuikTrip convenience stores in “unglamorous” industries like retail consistently rank among the best places to work.

“The real damper on employee engagement is the soggy, cold blanket of centralized authority. In most companies, power cascades downwards from the CEO. Not only are employees disenfranchised from most policy decisions, they lack even the power to rebel against egocentric and tyrannical supervisors. When bedeviled by a boss who thwarts initiative, smothers creativity and extinguishes passion, most employees have but two options: suffer in silence or quit.

“In a well-functioning democracy, citizens have the option of voting their political masters out of office. Not so in most companies. Nevertheless, organizations here and there have taken steps to make leaders more accountable to the led. HCL Technologies, a progressive Indian IT services company, encourages employees to rate their bosses, and then puts those ratings up online for all to see. Bullies and bunglers have no place to hide. And W.L. Gore, the Delaware-based maker of Gore-Tex and 1,000 other products, lets its highly decentralized teams appoint their own leaders. These are interesting aberrations from the norm, but in most organizations, power is still allocated top-down.”

Until people are free from a system where their boss wields compete power over their livelihoods, companies will find it difficult to harness and benefit from the full potential of their most valuable asset.

The key to unlocking employee engagement lies in flattening the organizational hierarchy and democratizing the decision-making powers.  A good place to start is to allow employees to set their own salaries.  Teams of employees must also be trusted with the power to hire and fire their leaders and coworkers. 

More and more people are coming to the conclusion that command-and-control is no longer an effective way to manage a company.  There is no reason why responsible adults should be treated like irresponsible and dishonest children as soon as they arrive to work.  In a later post, we will explore additional democratic policies that companies can implement in order to cultivate a more innovative and engaged workforce.


How to be a “good boss”

A recent post on USNews.com listed some nice tips on how to be “a good boss in bad times.” While things such as smiling, listening, and providing feedback would certainly the workplace environment a bit more pleasant, the root causes of most employee disengagement and employee-boss problems stem from a deeper, structural level.

The main reason why most people are unhappy at work boils down to the nature of the boss-employee relationship. The definition of a boss is “a person who exercises control over workers and makes decisions.” Since most people don’t especially enjoy being controlled by someone else or having decisions made for them, it’s not surprising that so many people are miserable and feel unmotivated at work.

The best way for someone to be a good boss is to not be a boss at all, but to be a leader instead. The main difference between a boss and a leader is that bosses are selected (from above) while leaders are elected (by their peers). If you want to become a true leader, try “putting yourself up for election.” Tell your team members that you will lead them only so long as you have their support and that you agree to step aside should the team members decide at some point that you are no longer suitable for the job.


CEO Seeks Employee Input, Prevents 450 Layoffs

Last month Paul Levy, CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, found his organization facing a $20 million budget shortfall caused by the economic crisis.  Instead of ordering the layoffs of the 600 workers necessary to cover the $20 million deficit, Levy decided to discuss this problem with his employees and to solicit their feedback on how the medical center should respond. 

Levy said the following at a meeting with employees of the medical center:  “I want to run an idea by you that I think is important, and I’d like to get your reaction to it,” Levy began. “I’d like to do what we can to protect the lower-wage earners – the transporters, the housekeepers, the food service people. A lot of these people work really hard, and I don’t want to put an additional burden on them.  Now, if we protect these workers, it means the rest of us will have to make a bigger sacrifice.  It means that others will have to give up more of their salary or benefits.”

What followed was an enormous amount of applause by the medical center employees, the vast majority of whom expressed their willingness to take pay cuts so that none of their coworkers would have to be laid off.  Over the next several days, Levy received over 600 emails from employees suggesting various ideas for reducing expenses.  These ideas enabled the medical center to find creative ways to trim $16 million in expenses, which saved 450 of the 600 positions that had been originally slated for layoffs.  (They are still looking for ways to keep the remaining 150 people in their jobs.)

Two of the pillars of workplace democracy are sharing information among employees and involving them in the decision-making process.  Paul Levy’s experiment with these innovative management practices will undoubtedly have a huge impact on the workers’ motivation and loyalty towards the organization.  Instead of facing sudden traumatic layoffs, the employees of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center were given a unique opportunity to participate in the decision-making process, and the center followed through and implemented the ideas that were generated.  The results have proven to be a huge success.

I wonder how many additional layoffs could have been prevented during the past year if executive managers had been more willing to seek out and act on the knowledge of their team members….

Source: Boston Globe

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The End of Management?

Gary Hamel, best-selling author of The Future of Management and one of the leading proponents of decentralized, innovative, and democratic management practices, recently wrote an excellent article about the following three forces which he feels “will mostly destroy management as we know it”

  • New web-based collaboration technologies
  • Dramatic changes that have made the competitive business environment more challenging
  • New expectations that “Generation Facebook” will bring as they enter the workplace

Hamel believes that we are on the verge of a management revolution that will transform society as much as the industrial revolution and that will put an end to the command-and-control hierarchical structure that has characterized the 20th century workplace. 

It will become common practice for companies to share information freely amongst all employees, and decision-making responsibilities will migrate towards the team members closest to the customers.

This shift of power and influence from top executives to the customer-facing employees carries both opportunities as well as risks for companies.  The people closest to customers obviously receive a more accurate picture of customers’ problems and are potentially better equipped to develop and deliver solutions to meet customers’ needs. 

The main challenges that executive managers will encounter will be to ensure that all employees have the ability, the freedom, and the motivation to do their jobs properly.  The best way to engage employees is to democratize management practices by making information accessible to all team members, decentralizing the decision-making abilities, and sharing financial incentives with the entire workforce in a more equitable manner.