Matrixed Work, Authority & Hierarchy

I recently posted this to an OD group:

I wrote this in the middle of the night last night, not specifically as a response to this string, but it is relevant.

I was actually stimulated by my search, with the help of my father and my brother, for the source of the quote my father has been attributing to John Dewey for decades: “There is not freedom without structure.”

Great quote, but as far as I can tell it was actually a paraphrase by my father of Dewy and Kurt Lewin that morphed over time in his brain into a quote of Dewey lol. The brain is a tricky thing…although if one of has evidence that Dewey actually said it, let me know!

Here is what I wrote, that at least feels like a bit of an epiphany for me (although consistent with how I have been thinking all along):

There is no freedom without structure. You need structure to play a game. No rules, no game. You need structure to run an organization. If you think hierarchy is the problem, think again. Hierarchy isn’t the problem. Issues are the problem. Authority issues, trust issues, ego issues, misalignment issues, etc. People will have issues with or without hierarchy. Without it, they will have chaos and issues.

By “hierarchy” I mean any boss-subordinate structure, within multiple layers or only one…certainly any structure where the boss has the formal authority to fire the subordinate.

People within such structures are often interdependent cross-functionally in their work, i.e., “matrixed” (always have been, always will be). I think there is a lot of confusion caused when people mix anti-hierarchy anti-authority values into matrixed work and fail to leverage the actual hierarchical reporting relationships. Project teams are a prime example, although this goes on in daily operations as well. The project team often consists of a project manager and a number of people who do not actually report to the project manager (they only have a “dotted line” to the project manager). If alignment for the work isn’t created layer by layer within the actual hierarchical reporting structure, the project team members will get pulled in other directions by the priorities their actual bosses have for them. It’s a lot easier to create cross-functional alignment by working with the hierarchy versus pretending it doesn’t matter. When there is misalignment people tend to deal with it with their reptilian brains…by acting bossy (fight)…or acting passive (flight). Whether a project team or not, working across functions requires ongoing dialogue to keep silos and attachments to groups from hardening and inhibiting performance…imho.

With that in mind, I think an effective hierarchy can function in any environment.

And from the introduction to my new book, Leadership Can Be Learned (due out in Oct 2017!):

An equally important premise of this book is that everybody has authority issues. It is part of the human condition. Everybody starts life totally dependent on the adults caring for them, and our beliefs, emotions, and behavioral habits regarding authority are forged in that early experience.

Despite this universal presence of authority relationships in human families and institutions, many people go through life in denial, or at least unaware, of their biases about authority. Even those teaching and writing about leadership (including me) have authority issues. Many in my profession, organization development, have advocated for decades for flat organizations, “self-organizing” organizations, leaderless teams, “servant leadership,” “upside down” organizations and a plethora of other approaches seeking a cure for the conflicts, convoluted communication, and inefficiencies that often emerge between leaders and subordinates. Tom Peters, as just one prominent example, in his bestselling In Search of Excellence heaped praise on the Uddevalla Volvo plant for opening its doors with leaderless teams. The same year that his book was published, sadly, the plant had to shut its doors due to low productivity/high cost production.

This is not to say that you can’t make flat structures work. However, to do so, you have to have clear eyed clarity about authority. You have to know who will decide what, how, and by-when, and you need everyone as aligned as possible in support of the authority structure in your system. You also need clarity about human systems. Starting with yourself, you must lead towards a high performance culture. Without such clarity, even in the simple structure of a hierarchy, you will have chaos.

Edwin Friedman’s leadership model, in my opinion, is superior precisely because it takes our authority issues into account, and guides each person in how to adjust and continually become a more effective and mature leader.

Leadership can be learned because although there is art to leadership there is also science. With this text you will gain a new understanding of human systems and of how to improve yourself and improve the system you are in. High performance culture and high performance leadership are mirror images of each other. Once you grasp the principals, the key will be in your hands.


Posted in Alignment, Change Management, Cross-Functional Work, Leadership, Matrixed Work, Organization Development, Systems Thinking, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Stretch goals versus continuous improvement…a false dichotomy


A consultant named John Reeve posted the above picture on linkedin with the title “Continuous Improvement may lead to Mediocrity.”

I agree, but fear this will become one more typically oversimplified consulting message, such as “core competencies” (which led to companies shedding profitable businesses that were “outside their core”) and “embrace change” (which has become a non-behaviorally specific performance expectation in many companies, and led to needless training when effectively engaging people in change would be much more useful).

Rather than throwing out the baby of continuous improvement with the bathwater, combine system wide continuous improvement with visionary goals that are actually meaningful (not just churned out annually…or “stretch goals” can also become mediocre) and create a  powerful combination. Continuous improvement can then be aligned to the meaningful goals.

A real example that I was privileged to assist with was the Managing Director of the Jamalco  bauxite refinery’s vision in 2002 of going from highest cost producer of alumina in the global Alcoa system to tied for the lowest (he was satisfied with tying two much larger Australian refineries that had huge advantages in terms of scale). He described this stretch goal to his people on a simple flipchart with the believable message that highest cost producer was a not a good position to be in if the larger corporation decides to cut costs by closing locations. He then (with our help) effectively engaged a cross section of the refinery in continuous improvement targeted at reaching the broader vision. Through initiatives led by many hourly workers, such as reductions in raw materials lost through leaks, huge and sustainable savings were made and the refinery achieved their goals within a year. With continuous improvement they sustained their position in the cost curve and were the only refinery in Jamaica to stay open and at full production throughout the Great Recession.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Find real and meaningful stretch goals and align your system around improvements that are strategic to hitting the goals.

A great resource on this topic is Chris Crosby’s new book, Strategic Organizational Alignment, which can be found on our website at

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Our founder, and father, Robert P. Crosby, on his mentor, Howard Thurman.

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360 Anonymous Feedback – Is it giving your organization the blues?

Every organization I am familiar with in the US and abroad conducts 360 anonymous feedback for people in leadership positions (90% of all companies according to an ETS 2012 study). This holds true despite data indicating lack of results and other problems. Here are just two examples:

Watson Wyatt’s 2001 Human Capital Index, an ongoing study of the linkages between HR practices and shareholder value at 750 publicly traded US companies found that companies that use peer review have a market value that is 4.9 percent lower than similarly situated companies that don’t use peer review and companies that allow employees to evaluate their managers are valued 5.7 percent lower than similar firms that don’t.

A 2005 meta-analysis of 26 longitudinal studies indicated that it is unrealistic to expect large performance improvement after people receive 360-degree feedback.

In other words, many individuals and organizations using 360s have been getting the blues.

Despite such feedback, the use of 360s continues to be widely accepted. All of the research I’ve read comes to a similar conclusion: that the answer is not to scrap them, but rather to improve on how the organization supports learning from the results. It should be noted, however, that all of the research I could find came from companies that sell 360s. Despite the problems indicated by their research, every source remained a proponent of the method.

None of the articles, however, addressed these three fundamental problems:

  1. Anonymous data and feedback leaves recipients and experts alike guessing at the true meaning.

The separation of those who provide the data from the task of understanding the data violates a fundamental principle once held dearly by the social science founders of survey feedback. As Ronald Lippitt, who was a close associate of Rensis Likert (the creator of the Likert scale used in all surveys), put it in a conversation with our founder (Robert P. Crosby), “They who put their pencil to the survey paper should also see and work the data.” This principle has been lost in most survey processes, including 360s.

2. There is a widespread knowledge gap regarding specificity versus judgements in behavioral feedback.

Behavioral specificity is a concept that many are unfamiliar with and/or is underused. Specificity in feedback (our model is based heavily on Dr. John Wallen’s “Interpersonal Gap”) sticks strictly with observable behaviors (“when you said or did ____”). Ownership in this case means taking personal responsibility for how one takes and interprets what someone else did or said (for example, “when you said or did ____, I was concerned that you might be losing faith in me”). Such interpretations (“losing faith” in the last example) come out of our own personal history (I might worry that people will lose faith in me, and project it on to others behavior, whereas you might not carry that worry at all). Blame-laden generalizations (“you aren’t a team player,” “you’re a micro-manager”) are generally delivered without ownership (i.e., as if they are just a fact about the other) and almost certainly result in defensiveness on the part of the receiver. There is a high likelihood the receiver will reject such feedback, and even silently blame the giver (“the actual problem here is you”). The predictable result is further erosion of the work relationship, adding to a spiral of even greater fear of giving and receiving feedback. This in turn can become the work culture of the organization. In contrast, a high standard of specificity and ownership is much more likely to build strong work relationships and higher organizational performance. Anonymous feedback rarely has a high standard of specificity and ownership. Instead it allows generalizations and blame.

3. There is also a knowledge gap regarding first order and second order change.

First order change is immediate and specific, such as a behavioral change following effective feedback. Second order change is cultural, such as the impact of how the feedback was gathered and delivered. Anonymous feedback inadvertently creates negative second order change, by reinforcing the fear of and avoidance of open face to face feedback. A typical belief in such a culture is “our people won’t be honest unless it is anonymous” and a predictable consequence is that the organization becomes more dependent on experts (whether internal or external) to manage feedback and/or conflict. In contrast, sufficiently skillful direct feedback has the positive second order effect of creating a culture where people are increasingly willing to have potentially difficult yet much needed work related conversations. Although upfront training and facilitation is likely needed, the organization becomes less dependent in the long run.

Additional negative effects of anonymous feedback based on the three factors above include:

  • Because 0f the low standards of specificity and ownership, the odds of anonymous feedback adding blame-laden generalizations to your permanent employee file are high, thus adding to the fear of the process.
  • Even when the 360 is mostly positive, and even when the receiver of the feedback is a competent and mature adult, it is tempting to speculate on who may have offered any “negative” comments, and to hold some resentment against them.
  • Without dialogue, the receiver is left guessing at the real meaning of even the most specific comments, hence decreasing the likelihood that the intended lesson will actually get learned.
  • By reinforcing anonymity and indirectness, anonymous feedback works against the skillful feedback that is the foundation of high performance culture, and runs counter to wise corporate values such as openness, trust and accountability.

What to do about it

Here are some tips corresponding to the three fundamental problems (above):

1. Use live feedback processes. When surveys are used, which we encourage, of course they should be filled out anonymously. That is not the problem. The potential for individual and organizational performance improvement lies, however, in allowing the people who filled out the survey to interpret the data and engage in dialogue about how to maintain strengths and address issues. Rather than an individual guessing at what others meant, or an expert assisting in deriving implications, the recipient gets live feedback from the people who filled it out. The data becomes a tool for dialogue. The focus, rather than being stuck on the scores and comments, is on the much more important and positive task of how to move forward from here.

Furthermore, effective survey feedback is reciprocal. That is, the scores are understood to reflect a two way street. If the boss scored low on work load prioritization, part of the puzzle is for subordinates that are confused about priorities to mention it to the boss, and to let the boss know what they understand or wish the priorities to be. This requires dialogue with both parties taking ownership of their part in what is working and in what is not working so well. Such dialogue, on an on-going basis, will take the organization to higher levels of performance with the side benefit of decreasing the reliance on outside experts.

Likewise, your people can give each other direct timely individual feedback, and begin a continuous process of learning from their experiences and improving their skills. In high performing groups and organizations people talk directly to peers, bosses, subordinates and other groups about what is working and what is not working. Any work team can move in this direction, and a critical mass in your organization of people who give and seek feedback grounded in specificity and ownership can quickly change the culture. You and your people are capable of direct and productive feedback.

2. Get the training, coaching, and facilitation necessary to make the transition to a culture of live group and individual feedback. Such work culture has been created time and again, and is directly related to high performance.

3. If you do the above you will be creating positive second order change. With each moment of successful live feedback you and your people will be on a path of decreased blame and avoidance, increased trust, increased skill at handling difficult conversations, increased self-reliance (less need for facilitators, etc., as skills and confidence are embedded in the daily culture), and a step-change in the willingness and ability to solve touchy problems that interfere with productivity.

Feedback is necessary. Anonymous feedback can actually have the unintended effect of decreasing the amount of live feedback flowing in the organization. Give yourself and your people the gift of skillful live feedback and you will not only help them avoid the anonymous feedback blues, you will get bottom-line results.

Call us. We can get you started on the path to high performance feedback culture today.

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T-Groups Applied to Industry

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Generative Power

The following is an excerpt is from Chris Crosby’s upcoming book:

Organization Alignment: Authority, Power, and Results

Generative Power

The intersection between authority, power, and love is where you will find a critical ingredient as to whether your organization is successful or not. However, since the words power and love are so confused in our culture I turn to Adam Kahane for the clarity I am seeking to convey. Kahane, in his recent book Power and Love synthesizes a view of power and love from some of the great minds of our time such as Martin Luther King Jr and Paul Tillich. When the people in your organization learn how to leverage their power and love as defined below and in the ways outlined throughout this book, then you will reach record results.

Tillich defines power as “the drive of everything to realize itself, with increasing intensity and extensity.” So power in this sense is the drive to achieve one’s purpose, to get one’s job done, to grow. He defines love as “the drive towards the unity of the separated.” So love in this sense is the drive to reconnect and make whole that which has become or appears fragmented. These two ways of looking at power and love, rather than the more common ideas of oppression and romantic love, are at the core of his book Power and Love and reflect the type of power and love that, if nurtured and utilized, helps organizations thrive.

In the words of Martin Luther King drawing on his doctoral studies of Tillich’s work:

“Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change…And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites─polar opposites─so that love is identified with the resignation of power, and power with the denial of love. Now we’ve got to get this thing right. What (we need to realize is) that power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic.

…It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our time.”

-Martin Luther King Jr.,

“Where Do We Go From Here?”

The opposite of power and love is not hate but indifference. From here Kahane postulates two types of power: generative and de-generative. Examples of generative power in organizations are aligning the system to its real challenges, holding people accountable, ensuring conflicts get resolved so that work gets accomplished on-time and with quality between people and departments, and various forms of praise and acknowledgment to the employees for hard work and accomplishments. De-generative power can be seen as avoidance of issues, allowing employees to do whatever they want, forced separation of people or departments that must work together as a way of “coping,” punishing people for speaking out or raising up difficult work issues, and spreading negative rumors. All employees, but especially those in positions of authority, must find ways to use their power in generative ways and minimize or eliminate their use of de-generative power.

Organizations complicate these two types of power because most humans have at least some issues with authority figures leftover from childhood. Many in organizations want to pretend that authority, by the very fact that it exists, is only de-generative. My contention here is that, for the most part, those people have only known de-generative power and are blind to the promise, potential, and importance of nurturing generative power. A mature adult development stage is to recognize that bosses possess both. Yet, some need appropriate guidance, education, and opportunities to nurture and grow their use of generative power. Workplaces seduced by de-generative power are apt to think consensus is best, raising issues is tattling, controlling through indirect means is appropriate, lacking clarity about decisions is common and, worse, operating like this should be the norm.

You can nurture generative power in your organization and use it to help all employees get on the same page. Do this and you will successfully navigate the complexities of your business and dramatically improve your results.

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Robert P Crosby discusses his book, Culture Change in Organizations

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Project and/or Whole Systems Planning Virtual Tour

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The Interpersonal Gap – Part Two

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Survey Feedback/Action Research

From a letter by Robert P. Crosby:

…Later John Scherer and I began a company emphasizing survey feedback as much earlier developed by Floyd Mann and Rensis Likert, colleagues of Dr. Ronald Lippitt who had become both a champion of and master of survey feedback (contrasted to surveys with their data not fed back to each discreet work unit). Done well, there is no more powerful organizational intervention. Ron viewed our work “…as doing more to encourage survey feedback than anyone since Mann and Likert.”

We hired Ron for a series of trainings for professionals. We sold our survey instrument to 600 companies.  To help the reader distinguish between surveys as commonly done and survey feedback, here’s an excerpt from a chapter of mine highly influenced by Ron:

We know what does not work. It does not work to survey people and not show them the results. It also does not work to survey people and have top management or an outside expert develop recommendations (prescriptions). It does not work to survey people and have a general session where results are reported and nothing visible to the employees is done. These approaches have all been tried hundreds of times and have, with rare exceptions, been found wanting. People tend to become irritable and defensive, with a resulting lowered morale and decreased work efficiency.


Begin with the assumption that the expertise to identify problems and, especially, to work out solutions to most problems exists within the organization. The suggestions that follow encourage you to involve the participants in generating the data, interpreting the data, and forging recommendations for next steps. This assumes that the people in your organization have expertise and knowledge and that the job of management is to tap that vein of experience. The late Dr. Ronald Lippitt spoke of a fundamental right: ”They who put their pencil to the survey paper should also see and work the data” (from a private conversation with John Scherer and Robert Crosby).

 Dr. Fred Fosmire, former Vice President of Organizational and Employee Relations at Weyerhaueser, writes: “Survey feedback methods, when implemented competently by managers who are receptive to feedback, may be the most powerful way we know to improve organization effectiveness.

 …There is no more effective way than survey feedback (turning data into action) to involve people quickly at the key points of data gathering, problem solving, solution recommendation, action, and follow-through.

Survey feedback, well donewill increase morale, improve work processes, heal broken work relationships, shift culture, and put into action effective , high-performing behaviors more quickly than any other intervention.

(Excerpt from “Walking the Empowerment Tightrope,” Chapter Five, Survey Feedback, CrosbyOD Publishing, 2015 – Ebook available)


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