At the Heart of Truly Powerful Organizations

Natasha Miller Naderi

(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.” [4]

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.[1]

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.”[2]

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.[3]

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?

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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?


[2]Beyond Empowerment: The Age of the Self-Managed Organization, by Doug Kirkpatrick.


[4]From Vignettes from the Life of Abdu’l-Baha

A Meditation on the New Year

Dear Friends,

I first want to wish all who have taken any of my courses, read my books or blogs, a truly happy and peaceful Christmas (Chanukah, or any Holiday) and best wishes for the coming year. I am truly grateful that I have had the opportunity to be of some small service to you.

As you know I teach and write about leadership, management and organization culture. So, of course, I view events in the news with an eye to the qualities of leadership being displayed and those required in present circumstances. I would just like to share a couple thoughts for your consideration as we look forward to the New Year.

The earth is a small planet. We are one people on this small planet. In a very real sense, we are all now world citizens. When we imagine differences and threats, when we lead in a way that amplifies those differences, we are leading toward greater friction and costs. When you manage a company, the more friction there is between engineering, manufacturing and sales, for example, the greater the likelihood of failure. All friction consumes energy and produces heat. When we create unified processes, eliminate frictions between activities and people, we reduce the cost of that friction. This is a principle that applies within a company, across companies, and across countries.

The job of leaders today, at every level, is to recognize the unity of interests, the unity of people and processes, and reduce barriers that are both real and in the imagination. Leaders create common purpose, they do not simply respond to, or exploit, popular sentiments. Leaders instill greater nobility in their followers, and do not manipulate their baser instincts. The entire world is in desperate need of leaders who are uniters, and not dividers.

I hope in the coming year we will all recognize our shared interests. The history of civilizations repeatedly demonstrates that when classes of people are increasingly separated by extremes of wealth and poverty, from top to bottom, the system becomes unstable and revolution results. The greater the disparity in class, the more violent the revolution.

There is no religious tradition, not in Judaism, Christianity, Islam or Buddhism, that celebrates the massive accumulation of personal wealth. They all promote charity and moderation, uplifting the poor, and forgiving those who have erred. We who either control or influence the systems of society, including within our organizations, I believe have the duty to design those systems to reduce disparity, to moderate wealth, to uplift the poor. This is the lesson of every religion in which we may profess belief. And, now is the time for leaders to put these spiritual principles into practice.

These are my prayers for the coming year. I pray for your happiness and your success.

Happy Holidays,

Larry Miller

You’re Fired!

You’re Fired!

These may be the most feared words in any corporation. Unfortunately, it has become a too often used phrase in American politics, intended to impart the image of a strong and decisive leader. But, if you are a competent manager you know that these words are the opposite – they are an admission of failure to be used rarely and humility. I write the following with the concern that some aspiring managers may fail to understand the significance of these words.

Great leaders attract the best people, have trust in them and receive trust in return. They build a team of collaborators who support one another and have very low turnover as a result. The words “you’re fired” may never be heard!

A Few Truths About Firing

First, two laws of human relationships:

If you want to be a good leader, you must first be a good human being! Your behavior reflects your values. Good human beings have good values, and if you have good values you treat others with dignity and respect. You will not gain respect if you are incapable of having respect for those whom you seek to lead.

Second, loyalty, like love, is gained when it is given. If you dismiss others easily, you will also be easily dismissed by others. If you demonstrate loyalty to others, you will likely gain loyalty in return. Loyalty is never “owed”, it is always earned.

Those of us who have been in positions of responsibility for any period of time have had to confront the unfortunate act of firing an employee. It is the single most unpleasant thing you will have to do as a manager. Why is it unpleasant? Because you know that you are inflicting pain on another human being, and if that is not painful to you, then you lack empathy, which is an essential quality of any leader.

Here are some rules of firing to consider:

  1. Hiring is more important than firing. If you hire well, you will fire rarely. Every firing is an admission that you did not do a good job of hiring the best people. The cost of replacing an employee is generally considered 150% of their annual compensation. When you must dismiss someone, you have incurred a significant cost to your organization.
  2. It is your job as a manager to develop, direct and lead your employees to the right behavior and performance and likely avoid firing. If you must fire someone then you must admit that you have either failed at hiring or failed at developing and directing that individual.
  3. Dismissing someone from your employment should never be a surprise to that person. Letting someone go is the last act in a process that, if done well, will correct most poor performance. This is an issue of justice! Yes, I said “justice.” It is unjust to be picked up by a policeman and thrown into prison without any knowledge of the crime. Likewise, it is unjust to fire someone who has not been given every reasonable chance to correct his or her poor performance. I go into this in some length in my course on Giving and Receiving Feedback. In short, here are some keys:
    • Effective correcting and development solves most problems. You must be absolutely frank and honest with the individual, sharing the exact behavior you see as problematic and instructing them in the desired behavior.
    • You must then give him or her feedback in very short order as to whether they are succeeding or failing to conform to the desired behavior. Give them the facts, the data on their performance. Give them feedback again.
    • Reinforce effort and progress, not merely the final desired behavior. Human beings learn through behvior shaping, successive reinforcement of approximations toward the desired performance.
    • You must go through this feedback/learning cycle several times in order to establish that the individual is either incapable or unwilling to perform. Only after repeating this cycle several times should you then warn the individual that if their behavior does not change, then you will have no choice but to terminate their employment.
    • These steps of correcting, feedback, and warning must be documented in writing to both the individual and to your human resource manager. In most countries there are significant legal issues that may arise from firing.

Assuming there is still failure, consider how you go about firing someone because that act has an impact on many others in the organization.

And When You Do…

  1. NEVER fire someone in public or humiliate them in public in any way. If you do, you will not be trusted by others and you will lose their loyalty.
  2. NEVER fire someone by twitter, email or other electronic means. Let me put this in the bluntest terms I can think of: If you aren’t man enough (or woman) to sit down and confront the individual face-to-face, you do not deserve to be in any leadership position.
  3. When you sit down with the individual you will remind them of the previous feedback and the final warning. You will then give them the facts on their performance and why it is not acceptable.
  4. Now have empathy for the individual. Help him or her consider that they are still a good person, but they simply do not fit this job. Surely, there is some other job where they will be more successful and where they will be happier. Ask if they have considered a different position. You are in the power/parent position, so help them to find a path toward their own success. In the rare times I did have to fire someone, I have had them come back to me and thank me for how I let them go and how I guided them. Believe it or not, firing can be a positive experience for the individual.

I was CEO of a consulting firm for twenty years. When we hired employees I told them that no one had ever been fired for making a mistake. I made mistakes, we all made mistakes. You could only be fired for two reasons: First, outright dishonesty – dishonesty within the company or dishonesty to our clients. Second, you could be fired for your failure to learn. I did have a case in which we had given someone very explicit feedback three times in regard to the same behavior, behavior that caused our client to ask for that consultant to be removed from the assignment.  Each time he blamed the client rather than accepting responsibility. He could not, or would not, learn.

If your company makes the above guidance the norm, you will have dedicated employees who are engaged in continuous self-improvement, and you will be respected as a trustworthy leader.

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