Peer-based thinking does not mean we are all interchangeable, or that we are all the same ”with equal talents, needs, ambitions, and so forth ”or that we even make equal contributions. But what it does assert is that all members of the organization have equal standing. By this I mean everyone in the organization is given the opportunity to participate in decision making. It is a strategic principle guaranteeing that the organization will be more successful. By denying no one the chance to make decisions about issues affecting his or her work, it increases everyone's productivity and lowers costs. Peer-based organizations are based on the belief that the potential for growth is not primarily found in top management, but in the employees at every level of the organization. So we need to transfer power and responsibility to them. This does not mean, though, that anything goes, or that anyone can do whatever they please .
Kurt Lewin, Ronald Lippett, and Ralph White (1939) conducted research with some teenagers at a boys' club that demonstrated how different leadership approaches to the exercise of power affected group behavior and the sense of group responsibility. Again, it is another example of how a group's behavior is more a function of context than of the character of the individuals who make up the group . They used three distinct leadership styles:
As autocratic leaders , they essentially set all the goals and made all the decisions, ordering the boys to do whatever they, the leaders, wanted and then criticized the boys' work. This, of course, is basically rank-based practice. The result was a hostile workforce in which the boys argued and fought with each other and with the "leaders." The boys, under the autocratic leader, were more likely to take advantage of one another and sabotage each other's work, while taking no responsibility for the results.
As democratic leaders, they facilitated the boys' own decision making and goal setting and nurtured mutual feedback regarding results and efforts. This, of course, is close to what I am calling peer-based practice. With this peer-based style, the boys showed more initiative and productivity as well as spontaneous cooperation and individual and group responsibility.
As laissez-faire leaders, they allowed the boys to do whatever they wanted without input or discussion of some common objective. The boys showed less direction and focus than under either of the other leadership styles. The laissez-faire leadership style could possibly be mistaken for peer-based management, but the two should be clearly distinguishable .
I want to stress that peer-based management is not laissez-faire leadership. As I have shared the promise of peer-based organizations with many different students of organizational theory, many of them assume that peer-based thinking will lead to chaos and directionless organizations. These associates make assumptions based on a false dichotomy: either you have a Big Chief at the top who is responsible for all decision making or a mob mentality where everyone does their own thing. To adequately respond to the legitimate concern that dichotomy expresses, we need to review what many management experts consider the seven key functions of organizational leadership, as listed below:
To define the goals and strategic objectives of the organization
To marshal and allocate organizational resources
To organize, schedule, and deploy the work
To monitor performance
To develop people
Of course, classical leadership supported by the myth of leadership is autocratic. Rank-based leaders essentially make all the decisions in these seven areas and tell their direct reports what they will do. Laissez-faire leadership would fail to pay any attention to these key functions and hope they somehow get taken care of. Peer thinking, on the other hand, recognizes the need to perform these seven leadership functions and to create processes for making the decisions required, but in a way that invites participation from everyone in the organization. As Lewin et al. point out, "We are likely to modify our own behavior when we participate in problem analysis and solution and likely to carry out decisions we have made" (85). You may find it useful here to review the key assumptions, logic, and practices of peer-based thinking described in table 5 (pp. 76 “77).
Two things stand out in Lewin's experiment at the boys' club on power and responsibility. The first is the different ways the boys responded when the leader left the room. In the autocratic context, the boys goofed off and bothered the weaker members. In the laissez-faire context, the boys stopped working and grew bored and restless. In the democratic context, the boys continued their projects, hardly noticing that the leader was not present. Obviously, only the democratic leadership context created true empowerment.
The second is how quickly the boys changed behavior when the management thinking was changed. Again, same boys, no sudden transformation in temperament ”but in a different context very different behaviors and levels of responsibility emerged. For instance, when a democratic leader replaced the autocratic leader, the group of boys soon became more open , cooperative, and focused. Lewin, however, did remark that the transition from an autocratic group to a democratic group was much more difficult than any of the other changes. It seems that democratic behavior is more active and must be learned, while following the dictates of an autocratic leader is a very passive response and hence easier to develop.
The conclusion we can infer from these two observations is the need to design the organization in such a way that peer-based thinking will emerge naturally and be promoted by this very design. This must be done in accord with the other conditions already mentioned: (1) do not make it too disruptive and (2) tie the changes into the important areas of organizational decision making. Of course, most change initiatives I have observed are catastrophically disruptive and fail to make much of a dent in organizational decision-making processes. There is no real sharing of power, and rank-based thinking is never challenged. This must be avoided as we design organizations to promote peer-based thinking.