Why Not?

Friday Jun 04, 2010

Nations and empires

Managers at all levels in all types of organisations are often accused of "empire building", the acquisition of new staff, responsibilities, resources and budget, when sometimes they are actually engaged in nation building. While the latter is essentially positive, the former is not.

The prima facie actions involved are more or less the same; the difference lies in the motivation. Empire building is associated with the attitudes that drive the equally negative "them and us" of 70s style management and old-style unions; it is about a zero-sum game where people are striving to get more from the organisation than others, and to take from others within the organisation without the appropriate primary motivation i.e. the good of the organisation.

Empire building is for the builder, the person or persons in charge - it is defensive, about ego-stroking or just being plain power-hungry. Other than by the builder themselves and their allies, the empire is generally seen and experienced as unpleasant, both in the short and, importantly, in the long term. Empires are built for the now and the next day, not the next month, year or decade; the builder might want the empire for the long-term, but the building is done for its own sake. In the long-term empires are usually negative for all involved as they tend not to be sustainable; they get too big to survive.

Nation building is for those who come after you; it is about the future, bringing together elements to make something sustainable in the long and very long term; recognising where natural boundaries lie, not growing unless there is a genuine benefit in growing; and when the nation grows, growing with the support of those involved, with alliances, trade and exploration. The objective is to make something stable and resilient, something that you can pass on with confidence that it can continue, and can continue as something positive.

It is often difficult to differentiate between an empire and a nation from the outside looking in, or even from the inside; this seems to be true regardless of the political system in which the empire/nation building takes place, democracy through to dictatorship. But in systems where there is an identifiable and more or less fixed ruling class, whether it is a kingdom, dictatorship or oligarchy, there tends to be a presumption of the negative, of a less than savoury motive behind the actions of that ruling class; this is particularly true when there is a group in the system which is opposed to the system type or to those currently in charge.

So organisational managers have a challenge on their hands. On one side we have the actuality that most teams/departments are in effect an oligarchy (actually I hope in practice a meritocracy, but that is another discussion...) and have trade unions in opposition to the organisation, ready to criticise whether or not there is something worthy of criticism. Within such a negative power atmosphere it is not surprising that most nation building, growth and change for the sake of the organisation, is perceived and opposed as empire building, and resisted as such, passively or actively. At best the negative voices detract from what might have been a collectively positive development, at worst they can create such a negative environment that the development fails, or even ends up bringing to the fore a very negative and dictatorial management style.

For sure, many department managers do engage in empire building; trying to get a bigger budget, control over new areas, a higher staff count; and in the final analysis doing this purely for the sake of having them. But at least as many, if not more, start off as decent capable people, and the changes they engender are all done with the best of motives. Sometimes, sadly, the continuous and unreasoned opposition to their well-intentioned efforts changes these people for the worse, forcing them to becoming dictatorial, encouraging them to develop negative views of human nature, to cease to be open to input; in all making the opposition self-fulfilling.

So, why not do something different? Why not be positive, engage with change? Why not start with the assumption that people are basically well-intentioned? Why not go with the assumption what is being built is a nation, not an empire? And that when people ask questions they are not being negative, just trying to understand and engage? Wouldn't that be nicer?

Maybe, just maybe, starting positively will lead to positive outcomes. Maybe even a nationan organisation fairer for all...

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