An Alternative to Hierarchical Leadership

English: From Left: Spc. Christopher Hickey, S...

These guys need a chain of command.  Your family probably doesn’t.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every now and again someone goes on television to talk about how her husband is the head of her household and she loves that because it’s the only thing that makes sense. After all we only have one President, and the military works in a hierarchy so obviously that’s just how leadership works.

Normally I see these stories and roll my eyes or make yakking noises in the privacy of my own home. If I’m feeling really worked up, I treat my partner to a monologue on why comparing the management of a family to the management of the world’s largest economy is ridiculous.

I did all those things this time as well, but after I calmed down a bit it occurred to me that while some families choose a “decider” on purpose, others do so because uncertainty is almost as uncomfortable as conflict and designating someone to make all the decisions is a quick and easy way to minimize the discomfort caused by disagreements.

If you chose to run your family that way because it makes everyone happy, knock yourself out.*

If, however, you are defaulting to letting the loudest person in your house make decisions because you believe that’s the only way to avoid knock-down, drag-out fights that result in doing what the loudest person wants anyway, consider this alternative.

Step 1: Separate interests from positions

Cover of "Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agr...

Cover via Amazon

The first, and most critical, step of this process is learning to separate what you want (your interest) from your plan for how you can get it (your position). This step is difficult because most of us move from interest to position so fast we aren’t even aware they are two separate things. In Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher et. all. illustrate the difference between interests and positions through a story about two men and a library window.

Like the librarian in the story, when we get stuck on positions the first step is to ask why. Why do you want the window open? Why do you want steak for dinner? Why do you want to go to California on vacation? This list of interests will be the basis around which the final solution is built so be sure to take as much time as you need to uncover all of the interests in play for everyone involved in the decision making process.

Do not skip this step!!! Interests are almost never mutually exclusive, but positions often are. If you get to the third step of the process and find that in order for one person’s needs to be met, the other must suffer, you are almost certainly still stuck on positions.

Step 2: Disclose assumptions

Once you have a list of the interests that need to be honored by the final solution, it’s time to articulate your assumptions about the other logistical requirements of the final decision. This is where criteria like “how much money can we spend” and “how much time do we have available.” come into play.

This step is important for two reasons. The first is that while these logistical criteria aren’t important in the same way that interests are, there is no benefit to coming up with a brilliant solution that can’t be executed because of lack of time, funds, or other practical details.

The second, and often overlooked, benefit of sharing assumptions is that doing so reveals information one participant has that another does not. Skipping this step means participants run the risk of discounting potential solutions based on bogus criteria.

Step 3: Switch Teams

Now that all the information you need is on the table, instead of pushing against your partner to get what you want (or abandoning your interest in exchange for peace) you can work together to find the creative solution that makes it possible for everyone’s interests to be honored.

The goal here is to find a solution that honors all or most of the interests identified in the previous steps. When you start, it may be tempting to decide which interests are most virtuous, and then just decide to move forward with the position originally suggested that satisfies that interest. That isn’t what I’m suggesting. Once the list of interests has been captured, the goal is to work together to find a new solution (position) that meets everyone’s needs. The final solution is almost always one that both parties like as well (or better) than their original position, and that neither of the participating parties would have come up with on their own.

This seems complicated

This process definitely takes some getting used to. It also appears to take longer than traditional decision-making processes because the time between identifying the problem and coming up with a solution is longer. However, the time between identifying a problem and actually solving the problem is about the same, or sometimes even shorter, because once a solution is identified, everyone involved really supports it, which means that everyone is invested in working together to make it happen.  Additionally, unlike other decision-making systems there is also very little room for resentment to take root and misunderstandings are almost always caught when there is still time to deal with them.

In other words, the extra time feeling a bit awkward is worth it.

If this decision-making process seems attractive to you, but you need more guidance on learning how to use it, let us know. We are working on a training manual based on this information and want to make sure you hear about it when it’s ready.

*Please just stop saying you do it because it’s the most logical choice. Unless you are living in a war zone or otherwise need to make split-second decisions that are obeyed instantly, having a designated person make decisions may be more comfortable, but it doesn’t lead to better choices.

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2 thoughts on “An Alternative to Hierarchical Leadership

  1. Mo, to my eye, this is a variation on non-violent communication. If you’re not already doing so, check out their approach to enrich your own:
    The concept of “positions” and “interests” translates as “strategies” and “needs” — and the premise that we all share basic, beautiful needs (connection, love, safety) and that there are probably *infinite* ways (strategies) to meet our needs is powerful. It’s all good!

    • Hi Les,

      You are right about that. I’ve read NVC stuff, but we actually started working like this before then. We cobbled it together from my exposure to Getting to Yes in grad school, and our consensus facilitation training– which now that you mention it was probably inspired by non violent communication principles. J is actually going to be doing a post in the next week or so introducing himself and talking a bit more about the connection between our experience working with consensus based decision making in organizations and how we started using it in personal decision making.

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