Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

By: Paul Walker

While recently reading an article about Holacracy, a specific comment on the article popped out to me. It was and still is one of the most memorable and impacting comments on the subject I have seen. What made it even better is that it ended on an encouraging note, but it was the commentator's initial statement that stuck like a perfectly cooked spaghetti noodle tossed against the wall of my mind. The comment, in relation to the idea of implementing Holacracy, read:
 
"Good idea in theory only. Here is the biggest problem this will cause, without hierarchy the loudest ideas, not best ideas, will win. In other words, bullies will rule the roost. The introverts will invariably feel alienated and powerless, they'll respond by creating secret groups and making pacts, leading to more internal squabbles. In many instances, the best option is arbitration by a figure granted authority." - R [commentor]
 
I have taught Holacracy full-time for a year now at Zappos, and had been operating in the system several months prior to that, but the only thing that got me interested in Holacracy in the first place was the concern voiced in the above comment. Before I was a Holacracy trainer, I did customer service e-mails, and I did it for two and a half years. When it came to that work, I was experienced, knowledgeable, and passionate, but in all my time on the team, I had hardly said a word in meetings. It was partially because I was very introverted and have never been comfortable interrupting or talking over people, but even when I tried, my voice was never heard. The loudest ideas won and the bullies ruled the roost. I felt alienated and powerless ... Okay, that is a grossly exaggerated comparison, but at least you see how my situation related to that in the aforementioned comment. Regardless, these things get better when Holacracy comes along.
 
I have always been a very self-managed person and had no issues reaching out to strangers in other departments when I had ideas on how to make the company better. Needless to say, when I first heard about Holacracy and self-organization, I did not think it was necessary. That thought changed when I heard one person casually say, "In Holacracy, people cannot interrupt you." That was it. That little phrase has been my driving force in making this structure work. For the first time in my life, I was confident in calmly interrupting someone to say, "This is actually my time. Please let me finish my thoughts." That someone happened to be my former manager, of all people. Had I not interrupted so promptly, the Facilitator would have for me. The rest of the meeting continued without any problems on either side. I knew I could call that out and say what I had to without fear of retaliation, because we all knew the rules and processes, and because the Facilitator was there to protect and support me. 
 
The "Facilitator" is a major piece of the Holacracy game. This Role is a neutral party that makes sure everyone follows the rules of Holacracy meetings and ensures that nobody has more power or say than anyone else. This Role (one of which exists on every single team across the organization) is what got me into Holacracy because I knew first-hand the struggles of not having a voice. I wanted to contribute to helping others like myself be able to speak up and make changes. While it was certainly possible and happened all the time before, Holacracy guarantees everyone's voice can be heard, even if they wouldn't normally speak up on their own. Theodore Roosevelt once said,
 
"Speak softly and carry a big stick."
 
In the original context, it was largely about foreign policy and peacefully negotiating while reminding the other side about your military power, just in case. Of course, Zappos does not have its own military (at least until our llama-mounted, t-shirt cannon-wielding infantry gets better trained), but the concept is just as powerful and game-changing in Holacracy. In this new world, the big stick is the equal authority that each person has. Everyone's responsibilities, authorities, and the rules we follow are clear for anyone to see. I know exactly what decisions I can and can't make, and so does everyone else. I know how the meetings work, and so does everyone else.
 
Thanks to our culture at Zappos, treating one another with respect is the norm, but sadly, this is not the case everywhere. With Holacracy at your side, nobody can speak over you or shut down your ideas. Nobody is any more important than anyone else, titles and tenure do not have the impact they once did, and pushing ideas through is not easier if you are the physically most imposing person in the room (Trust me that Holacracy helps a lot with this one. Curse my lithe dancer's physique!)
 
To sum up - The rules of this system protect everyone equally. If you have an idea, you can not only share it, but you can make it happen, and anyone in your organization is capable of this as well, no matter who they are or where they fall in the standard organization ladder.

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