(A guest post by Natasha Miller Naderi, and yes, she is my daughter, I am proud say and building her consulting business in Beijing.)
Once a child asked a wise man, “why do all the rivers flow into the powerful ocean?” The wise man replied, “because it sets itself lower than them all and so draws them to itself.” 
Emerging organizations are transforming our understanding of “power.” The powerful organizations of the future will be those that successfully engage the heart and mind of every member. Other forms of traditional power will follow, and not precede, this first cause. At the heart of this these organizations, lies a fundamental transformation in the social contract between the individual and the organization. It involves moving from ‘Adult to Child’ to ‘Adult to Adult’ relationships. This is the first principle from my last article, On the Verge of Transformation: Unlocking Powerful Principles of Emerging Organizations.
When we see one another as adults – who are noble, worthy, and potentially powerful beings – EVERYTHING changes. We shift how we organize, how we relate to one another, the language we use, how we share information, how we learn and grow, how we assure quality of our products and services, how we hold one another accountable, and so much more. False dichotomies of us vs. them are broken down. We are them, they are us.
Organizations that operate with an assumption of Adult-to-Adult Relationships give high degrees of power to all, and at the same time, create tremendous transparency and accountability that demand high responsibility.
You may be thinking – that sounds pretty easy and obvious! In our daily lives we typically treat human beings as equal adults. We very naturally ask for the viewpoints of others, when making a decision that will impact them. And we only offer suggestions to a friend, recognizing that it would be completely inappropriate to force our will on another.
Yet, at work, we often act very differently. We might take pride in how many people are ‘below us’ and feel easily threatened when our directions are questioned by someone ‘beneath us’. And on the flipside, we might keep quiet when someone ‘above us’, has a different perspective, even though we are very confident in our view.
When we lack the skills for effectively communicating and collaborating, we fall back on resorting to force, over and over again. When this happens, there is an enormous cost on the human side of the organization. We foster an Adult-to-Child social contract, lowering the sense of self-worth and self-perceptions of those ‘below us’. We lower net energy and create negative responses such as fear, blame, and regret. We take power away from other people and stunt one another’s growth.
Why create an organization of powerless people? Why increase negative energy? Why develop child mindsets? Is there a better way?
Examples from Emerging Organizations
Let’s look at a few examples of what Adult-to-Adult Relationships look like in some powerful organizations.
Morning Star is the world’s largest tomato processing company and has been operating with self-management for two decades.
In Morning Star, there are no employees. All are “colleagues”. Two principles govern human interactions: First, people should not use force against others or their property. Second, people should keep their commitments to others.
No person has unilateral authority over any other person, including the authority to fire others. And no one person has command authority. The rationale is that, if an employee can’t be persuaded of the value of the decision, you might not have thought through the decision well enough. Furthermore, no one will be engaged in executing it, and may in fact subtly undermine it.
Morning Star emphasizes “total responsibility”. At Morning Star all colleagues have the obligation to do something about an issue they sense, even when it falls outside of the scope of their roles. It is unacceptable to say, “somebody should do something about this problem” and leave it at that.
There is an ‘accountability process’ requiring all colleagues to have direct conversations with one another on performance issues. “Anyone not willing to initiate such a discussion would just have to tolerate the situation. Either put up or shut up.”
Another fantastic example of an organization that develops Adult-to-Adult Relationships, is Lumiar. Lumiar is an educational institution, founded in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and now comprised of nine different K-12 schools throughout Europe and South America.
At Lumiar, all community members, including the children, are treated with the greatest respect and challenged at the highest levels to develop their maturity, responsibility, ability to make important choices, and much more. At Lumiar, there are no teachers, only ‘tutors’ who identify the interests of the children, create problem-based learning projects, and guide the students in completing them.
At these schools, all community members contribute to participative management, through weekly ‘Circles’. Anyone in the community can add to the agenda. For example, one time a kitchen staff wanted to talk about why the children aren’t cleaning up after themselves; another time the children wanted to talk about why they can’t bring gum to school. Through these conversations, students develop critical skill needed in the 21st century of inquiry, communication, understanding of diversity, tolerance of frustration, and much more.
In Which Stage is Your Organization Operating?
The picture below shows the evolution of organizations into a stage of adult-adult relationships. Which one matches your organization most closely?
Actionable Ways to Expand Our Power
How can we expand the power within ourselves, while honoring and expanding the power within others? How can organizations create positive spirals that result in a net increase in our collective power?
In addition to building structures, systems, and skills that support distributed power, below are a few simple steps we can take.
1. Speak to the ‘Why’. When we share why we’ve made a decision, we are recognizing the rights of others to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions. Additionally, we develop good judgement when we think through and communicate the reasons behind our actions and decisions.
2. Ask for Solutions. When we talk about problems, we tend to get more problems and fall into victim and powerless mindset. When someone comes to you with a problem, you can help them find their internal power through asking, “what would you like to see instead?” and “what do you think might be the first step to make that happen?” We often do not recognize our own power and strength to discover and action solutions.
3. Become Dedicated to Investigation of the Truth. When we are genuinely seeking the truth, we become detached from our ego and our personal will, and do not feel a need to use force. The goal is not to win. The goal is to investigate reality and discover the best solution. When we are humble and dedicated to a power and truth that is outside of ourselves, we expand our collective power, without concern for its source.
What you might notice through all of these examples, is that we expand our personal power when we develop a deep sense of our personal humility at the same time.
What other best practices have you seen, to expand our collective power?
Beyond Empowerment: The Age of the Self-Managed Organization, by Doug Kirkpatrick.
From Vignettes from the Life of Abdu’l-Baha