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Saturday, August 14, 2010

What's in a name?

I have recently been in a variety of situations that have me thinking about titles and power and how people and organizations use them.

Let me say, I have never been a fan formality for formality sake. I have always been Chris, not Christopher. Coming from very blue collar roots, I am almost instinctively distrustful of people who insist on being addressed by their titles. I like calling my doctor Kevin and generally find places of worship that address their worship leader by title (Mother, Father, Rabbi, Imam, etc.) are less warm and out forth a more disconnected sense in their community life than ones where the leader and the members of that community are on a first name basis. The role of leader is just that, a role, a function. The leader works for the community, but s/he is no better, no closer to the divine, than anyone else. Imagine the possible differences in the community life and in how people view and treat one another,  in a church where the leader is interoduced as “Kevin who is our priest" vs.  "This is Fr. O’Malley."
I recently shopped at 2 different computer stores, an Apple store and one small local computer chain. The Apple store was filled with neat, but casually dressed, friendly helpful staff, the other had sales people in ties or dressed who looked and felt, to me as a consumer, as old fashioned, stiff and formal. I felt much more at ease and at home with Apple folks, who looked bright, comfortable and energetic.  I am much more likely to return the Apple store to do my shopping in the future.

While I am definitely someone who strongly values importance of good boundaries, I don’t believe good boundaries are about formality and titles. Good Boundaries are about appreciating individuality and creating realities where people’s best gifts come forward. When titles are very important, it is nearly always a situation where those with the most power have the “titles” and those with less power either don't have title or have smaller leser titles. In those organizations, the head of the organization is clearly “Miss. Johnson” or “Dr. Johnson” but the cleaning person always still just “Maria”

Whenever I have been in situations that are rigid about titles, power seems to be very “top down.” In my estimation, there are essential differences between being too familiar, equality, authority and good/healthy boundaries. I find, more often than not, that any institution which relies heavily on titles (Dr./Dean/Rev./Canon) or the use of Ms./Mrs./Miss/Mr. is very hierarchical. Frankly, those organizations often have the terrible boundaries because they rely on rules over a real sense of the importance of each person’s role. In those organizations there are more secrets, more hidden agendas, more “system beating” behaviors rather than sincere engagement. People in these organizations spend too much time working around the rules and less time dealing directly with the issues at hand. There are more layers of division, more bureaucracy . "Lower" level workers are far less like to bring problems they see or solutions to problems they might wish propose to the table. There also tends to be less accountabilty to the powerful people in these organizations and more rigid rules for the not-so-powerful. These organizations often depend on these surface formalities to enforce rigid divisions, top down power dynamics and a false sense of good boundaries.

A healthy community/business has good open communication lines and boundaries that are clear, with some flexibility, not because some external formality is enforced, but because everyone’s role and place in the organization/community is respected. Everyone is expected to perform their task because of its importance. Everyone in such a buiness/community acknowledges that trust and interdependence keep things running. Everyone keeps everyone else honest and on task. The rules in these places are important to provide structure and safety for all, but "enforcement" is less of an issue.

I am not suggesting that every organization should be a complete democracy, no organization, could function that way. If everyone had an equal vote in every decision, it would chaos and nothing would get done. Organizations should function in ways foster people feeling a part of something larger that has importance and value and that everyone has an important voice. Solid leadership and good representation of all replaces rigid rules and highly structured rigid goverance.
These are businesses where, for example, the CEO and the janitor are on a first name basis because each of them respects the vital role each one plays in the organization. The janitor wouldn’t expect the CEO to clean the toilets and CEO would not expect the janitor to close on a merger, however each would able to talk easily with one another. CEO could say s/he knows a better window cleaner for the bathroom mirror than the janitor is using and the janitor would feel free to bring her/his ideas about a weaknesses in the merger agreement s/he observed without either being viewed as “stepping on toes.” Janitor would know he has a voice and respect the fact that he does not have a vote in everything, but feels like a vital part of the organization. In another example, there are churches where the leader/minister/priest works with people in the congregation to develop worship styles that work for that community versus churches where the leader “educates” the people on the “right” way to worship. This doesn't discount the roles of poeple with specialize knowledge people doing what they do best in their area, but it means that the leader is not assumed or expected to do everything or make decisions in a vacuum.
Those who are given more power in an organization should see that they are entrusted with using a certain amount of power by their community to do a certain job/function. Good leaders in an organization know and use what power and privilege they have been given to benefit of the larger whole, all the while acknowledging that they are temporary holding power for the community.

In my experience, oftentimes, when organizations try to enforce very formal titles is it a signal and symptom that boundaries are poor and there is a real lack of interest in really addressing boundary issues. Such a place, unable to do the hard work of community building and setting boundaries, artificially becomes more rigid, more formal, and more rule-based as defense mechanism. People become more distant from one another; feel less attached to the organization and to one another and look for way “around” things rather than directly approaching things head on. In businesses like this, people work for a paycheck and have little investment in the organization as a whole.

Community building is hard work; it requires sincere engagement, vulnerability, transparency and a willingness to view power and responsibility as shared concepts across all groups and individuals in an organization. Yes, everyone should know that certain people have the rights and responsibility to hold power and make certain hard decisions, but all should feel that we are responsible to one another. These are difficult lines to draw, but essential ones for a healthy organization.

In my opinion, organizations that are seeking to grow and evolve should worry less about being too “familiar” or not formal enough and more about healthy boundaries and a sense of community where all people feel vital and important parts of one community. Different roles are maintained, not because of titles and rules, but out of respect for one another.

Functional healthy organizations seek consistency and look for ways to foster mutual respect. In those organizations too many rigid rules and formality get in the way. In such organizations people come to appreciate their roles and do their best work because they believe in the organization, but because of a title or a dogged adherence to a rule book.


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