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Will McInnes

Challenges working in a democratic work culture

Thanks to Ricardo Semler and a wonderful group of people that make up the team, we run our company differently to most.

  • We try to ever-develop an open culture, where for example people share their rewards – see illustration!
  • We try to harness the innate potential of our people through democratic practicessee video!
  • We try to do all of this in a way that translates into happiness benefits AND financial benefitsread blog post!

But – alas – it’s not all candy floss and kittens in our world.

The more we practice what we do, the more aware I become of the challenges in doing what we do.

Here’s a few we wrestle with:

  1. Stress from openness and reality
  2. Honesty & conflict
  3. Non-participation
  4. Dealing with other people’s perceptions
  5. Managing messiness
  6. UK employment law
  7. Perceived slowness
  8. De-programming new people
  9. The need for personal change
  10. Forgetting how different it is

1. Stress from openness and reality

I think we all feel we’d like to know what’s really going on at work. But actually, it’s pretty stressful sometimes. Reality bites, and there’s probably a reality biting in every workplace but in ours it’s a special kind of ‘this is really real’ reality – be that new business data, financial information, having to share in big crunchy decisions, having to bear the load of big responsibilities and solving tough problems. I guess people that have or do work in start ups can absolutely identify with this, and probably freelancers and independent consultants too. But often when you live in a bigger organisation, this kinda thing is hidden away.

So the emphasis on openness is actually pretty tough to live with. As one team member put it when he first joined, “it’s like having the honesty volume turned up”. Good, but not easy.

2. Honesty & conflict

Being in an honest environment leads to more conflict. Hopefully more positive, and open conflict (as opposed to concealed, disguised, poisonous conflict) but conflict all the same. In reality, we don’t have enough positive conflict at NixonMcInnes in my opinion, and we’re taking responsibility for that and trying to work on it. But it’s hard. (A good book on this is Crucial Confrontations).

But as British people, as nice people, sensitive people, I think most of us find conflict very very scary. Especially in a professional environment. It’s hard!

3. Non-participation

You think the issue matters or that the opportunity to contribute is wonderful – you open up the floor – and then nothing. No participation, no contribution, no care. One of the thing that new starters find hardest is that simply asking for input doesn’t always work. People here are busy, capable and empowered – so they behave more like volunteers. You need to enlist them, excite one another with the mission, call and engage. An email won’t get it. Sometimes our guest board seats go unfilled, much to our chagrin. Just because you say it’s participatory, doesn’t mean it is!

4. Dealing with other people’s perceptions

One I find very hard. When I describe our working practices, culture and values to people, they usually don’t get it. Maybe it’s how I communicate it? But senior agency people and clients look at me like I’m a bit mad, a bit goofy and actually totally insane. They say things like ‘well, if that works for you….’ and ‘do they know how much YOU earn’…. and ‘but isn’t just like management by committee’ and perhaps worst ‘wow…ummm…that sounds really nice’.

It’s especially different with other agency professionals: to them it just feels alien and a total lack of respect for authority. But it can also be an overhead for family and friends and normal people – it’s hard because it’s different. But it can make for a lonely experience.

5. Managing messiness

Difficult to explain without sounding like a new-age-business-writer-twerp, but it goes something like this: we believe in participation, we believe in being networked rather than command-and-control, and in empowerment rather than over-hierarchy.

The result of this combination is that when someone says ‘who do I need to talk to about this’ the answer can often be ‘try Lasy and see what Tom says, and then speak to Max’. When someone phones up and says ‘who is the person that manages XYZ functional responsibility?’ the answer may not always be simple.

So some of the good stuff does result in a kind of functioning and effective messiness, which we’ve learnt some people just can’t tolerate. Some people – good people – have been attracted to the promise of our culture, but in the end repelled by the lack of simple answers to sometimes simple questions :)

6. UK employment law

UK employment law is a tricky thing for any company. I understand what it is attempting to do, and protecting people is a very important thing to do. Our issue at NM is that we feel we often put people before the company finances (which of course has a long-term benefit of translating into positive financial results) but that the law is an absolute blocker, minefield and inflexible mallet of an instrument.

Put simply, democratic principles and UK employment law are definitely not peas in a happy pod. A challenge.

7. Perceived slowness

When you have to involve people, it can feel slow. The pressure is on, you just need to get something done, the thought of canvassing opinions and experiences and inviting feedback is basically a very unpleasant idea. It FEELS slow.

So maybe you short cut it.

You don’t involve the people, you save the time, make the decision and go go go. BLAM!! Then, bit by bit, people ask the same questions, want to know the whys and wherefores, or perhaps just waste time while they wonder what’s really going on and why.

Involving people can feel slow – lots of contributions, lots of feedback, lots of input. But we feel the results are actually faster – once committed, people commit more fully. HR professionals say that employee engagement is the magic key – engagement = results = profits = win. We believe participation is the magic key to engagement. It can feel slower in the early stages, but the benefits come next and keep coming.

8. De-programming new people

It seems to take about 6 months for people to really get how things work culturally in NixonMcInnes. For people to work out how they can behave, how they can dress, how they can participate and voice their feelings and ideas. You can actually ‘see’ it happening, I feel. It’s like deprogramming from a different way. I’m probably underestimating how much this happens whichever new work environment people go into. But it feels big when I observe it, so I’m listing it as a challenge.

The way we deal with the challenge is simple, fortunately: just patience. It happens.

9. The need for personal change

Lots of these other challenges end up resulting in the need for some kind of personal change: changing to cope with extra doses of openness, with more responsibility than normal, with a messier, more networked working structure, with the need to be honest to others, even though you (we / I) really, really would rather swerve it or take the edge off of it or grit and smile through it.

Perhaps this is the hardest of all the challenges? Changing is damn hard. I can’t think of an NM team member who hasn’t really changed since they’ve been here. Being a rose-tinted fanboy, of course I see it as positive change, as evolving, but I really believe it.

And perhaps I can talk with most strength about me. Because I’ve changed massively, thanks to the way things are here. I’ve become more confident and a bit less brash, learnt new communication skills which I occasionally remember to apply, learnt how to change and cope with change, how to help other people do the same. It’s been good. But not easy.

10. Forgetting how different this is

Finally, another big challenge with all this different culture gubbins is starting to take it for granted, forgetting that it’s different and special and ours, and just assuming that’s how life is out there in the working world. And that I believe is a little bit dangerous and a lot of a shame. As a professional service organisation, we achieve our results for and through our clients. To do that, we have to be cognisant of their environment, their pressures and needs and meet them halfway. We do that. But we don’t always remember how different this thing here is.

Lots to do, lots to learn, and at least 10 nice challenges to keep us on our toes.

This post was filed under Not for profit, The future, Working culture Comments are currently closed.


  1. Marcus Hickman

    Ricardo Semler rocks!

    Posted 12th July 2010 at 6:42 pm | Permalink
  2. Hey Marcus – Semler does rock :) But will you put his ideas into practice when your entrepreneurial instincts next kick in to action? That is the question…

    Posted 13th July 2010 at 8:20 am | Permalink
  3. Marcus Hickman

    Hey Will!- I think i’ll certainly be rereading him when that time comes, been a few years since management classes but I still remember thinking his ideas are great, lovely to find an organisation using them :)

    Posted 19th July 2010 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

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