Tuesday, April 8, 2014

How Communities Value Labor, Revisited

Two days ago I received this thoughtful communication in response to my previous blog Paid Versus Voluntary Labor in Cooperative Culture:

I my view intentional communities are by definition communistic—I mean the real definition, not the politicized one. Everyone brings different skill sets and resources to the table. The problem as I see it is properly valuing these skills. It is sort of reasonable to expect individuals with management skills will end up managing. The problem becomes how do you prevent them from taking over, as seems to always happen in real life communistic societies.

Rotary International does it by changing its leadership every year. This prevents the taking over problem at the cost not having the best leadership every year. This can be somewhat mitigated by having a standing bureaucracy behind the leaders but just moves the "taking over" down a few layers.

This does not address the related problem with other skill sets, as you pointed out. I find it hard to imagine a healthy individual with a high-end skills being willing to support individuals with low value skills, and who may be unhealthy to boot for long periods—unless those individuals can bring something else of value to the table.

My point is that I don't see intentional communities ever being viable on a large scale.

I've extracted two main points from this note, and I'm going to tackle them separately.

1. How do you balance the need for effective leadership (a skill set that's unevenly distributed) with the danger of leaders abusing their power?

The first thing that needs to happen, in my view, is that cooperative groups need to define what kind of leadership they want and what constitutes healthy uses of power. While I don't think this is that hard to accomplish (think servant leadership, and leaders as facilitators), most groups have done neither and the resulting ambiguity has led to all manner of mischief—mainly because we all bring to the cooperative experience a personal history of being damaged by leaders who have abused power and we're guarded against that happening again. While it's good to not be naive, it's a grave problem (because of the tendency to project the sins of past leaders onto current ones) and damn hard to discuss the perception that power has been misused without going thermonuclear.

Leaders need to be held accountable for fulfilling their duties and acting within their authority, yet they also need to be supported and appreciated for their contributions (just like anyone else). Mostly cooperative groups do a miserable job of this, with leaders far more likely to get struck than stroked.

In this brittle and unbalanced environment, taking on leadership roles is not very attractive. (Who wants to wear the shirt with the bulls eye in the middle?) This discourages members from developing their leadership capacity and tends to keep the same people (those with saint-like qualities and/or thick hides) in leadership positions regardless of their openness to sharing the dais.

While I think it's silly to expect everyone to be equally capable of leadership, you can (and should) invest in training members to develop their leadership skills and look for opportunities to give people work appropriate to their capacity and inspiration. I believe we can (and must) develop models of leadership where:
o  Leaders know what qualities are wanted in their position (which, by the way, can vary substantially based on the position)
o  Leaders are evaluated periodically to assess how well they're doing (performance relative to job description)
o  Leaders are celebrated for their accomplishments 

o  Leaders are supported when they're in over their heads
o  The group invests in developing leadership capacity among its membership.

While I appreciate the concern about how badly power has been used by leaders at the national level flying under the banner of communism, I think we first have to develop robust models on the local level and work our way up. Though I hear the skepticism, I'm hopeful of developing dynamic models of democratic engagement based on consensus principles, and then ratcheting up to larger circles.

To be sure, there are a number of challenges to this:

a) Skilled facilitation

Meetings should be run by neutral facilitators; not by committee chairs, board presidents, or dictators for life. There needs to be even-handed access to the agenda and the emphasis needs to be on inclusivity and energetic congruence—rather than on brokering a majority and then ramming it home.

b) Adequate communication skills

This can be worked from both ends. Attention can be paid to reaching people where they are (which includes a variety of formats and ways to engage) and to developing the ability of people to be more articulate, better listeners, and less reactive.

c) Overcoming apathy

How do you keep the average member engaged in group issues—especially when they have little direct say in the outcome? For the most part this is a matter of providing an attractive point of entrée and making it clear how their input is respected and taken into account (this is particularly challenging when their viewpoint does not prevail).

I don't believe that the delegation of power necessarily leads to its abuse, but you need a strong a commitment to: a) collaborative leadership; b) transparency of operation (where everyone is informed of what's happening and why); and c) diffusion of leadership—to the extent that it can be accomplished without sacrificing dynamism or productivity.

Isn't the commitment among intentional communities to value everyone's contributions evenly (or at least heading in that direction) a fatal flaw in terms of modeling a society that works better? That is, how can it possible scale up? Why would people who can command high salaries live in such societies?
That's a fair question. It's one thing to have an ideal (or at least an idea) of moving toward alternative economics by treating equally all labor volunteered by members to the group's well being—regardless of whether that's mopping the kitchen floor, or setting up and troubleshooting a sophisticated website (replete with blog feeds and video clips). But how far can you realistically take that?

How will you entice people who could earn top dollar in the mainstream business world to volunteer their services to the group for an attaboy at the next potluck—which is the same coin offered to those doing the potluck dishes?

The answer is that this choice is not based solely on economics; the reward is social as well. In fact, once you get past the lower levels of Maslovian needs (food, water, shelter, clothing, sex, sleep, safety), the more weight is given to social considerations. People enjoy making contributions in support of others, in recognition of friendship, for the good of the tribe. This is not martyrdom or idealistic zealotry; it's identification with the group, and doing one's part. Further, the more that the individual receives in the way of recognition, a sense of belonging, and security, the more they're prone to give. It feels good.

To what extent does it make sense for the strong to take care of the weak (a catchall that includes those with low paying skills, the infirm, those prone to sickness, the depressed, etc)? Well, how about asking that the other way around: what sense does it make to build a society that throws people under the bus if they can't answer the bell?

While I'm not advocating that weakness be rewarded, it seems inhumane to ignore it or to respond solely with tough love. It seems to me that a compassionate society needs to guarantee that everyone's basic needs will be met, while still finding ways to honor initiative, productivity, and reliability. It's a balancing act.

On the societal level, there is a point to be made about how cultures have choices about how the cost of education relates to compensation. In the US, for example, doctors and lawyers are highly paid professionals, which at least in part is justified by high schooling costs. In cultures with more state subsidized education (for example, Cuba and Russia) doctors and lawyers are still important professions and command a decent salary—just not an indecent salary. And this has nothing to do with the quality of the training or the skills of the practitioners. Thus, how the state allocates funds has an impact on wage differentials.

As a final note, do you really want people making vocational choices principally based on the size of the jackpot once they're licensed? Is that a world you want to live in? Is that a doctor you'd want to trust your health to, or a lawyer whose advice you'd seek for the health of your trust? Think about it.

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