Full Employee Participation in Policy-Making Through Representative Council (workplace democracy)

E. Forrest Christian elliott jaques, Governance, Managing, Wilfred Brown Leave a Comment

Can employee participation / workplace democracy actually succeed? Do we have to have hierarchy? What is the real source and reason for managerial authority? Can we create an employee participation / workplace democracy without falling into nothing getting done? Why do some people get paid more than others? What is fair in compensation?

Wilfred Brown worried about these issues of employee participation. Elliott Jaques would turn his back on this after Brown died, leaving employee participation in policy-making to the goodwill of the manager. It was an innocence about power that has led critics to see his later Requisite Organization formulation as having “fascist” tones because it emphasized the authority and power of the hierarchy while ignoring any interest that workers as a whole would have in changes to policy within the firm.

Brown’s Big Idea — and it was one — was coming to understand that Employee Participation and Workplace Democracy really needed to be limited to changes of policy within the company, which was of interest to all employees, and that giving employees a true voice in policy decisions increases morale, productivity and the strength of the management culture. Managerial decisions about implementing policy were not of large interest to employees: they wished, in his words, “that their manager would just get on with it.”

The key difference is that policy changes are about values. Value changes fall outside of the realm of “managerial decisions”, and fall more within the issues of the society at large and the multiple stakeholders represented within the firm. Remember that corporations exist not because they have to but because society gives them existence. This is explicit in much of the original legal reasoning and continues today.

Brown’s genius is that he shows where managers should make decisions and where they should be part of the larger society.

That and the idea of the unanimous voting body of elected employee representatives.

Now I’m no fan of socialism, having read Hayek early in life before becoming a College Libertarian. (I voted for Ron Paul for president in 1988 and then stopped.) Brown’s ideas about central planning are just plain wrong-headed. But his ideas about employee participation aren’t, partly because he had to live with the results of it from 1939 on.

Most people who bother knowing about Brown at all misunderstand what he was doing at Glacier, not in a small part due to the fact that Jaques seems to have misrepresented it later on (Brown never saw the works council and participation as having run through their usefulness). To help curb this ignorance, I am giving you Chapter 5 of Wilfred Brown’sThe Earnings Conflict, “The right of full participation by employee representatives in policy making” [PDF, 4MB].

Here’s some subheadings:

  1. Current confusion about participation
  2. The fears of managers about participation
  3. Employment hierarchies are not essentially autocratic
  4. The difference between policies and decisions
  5. The negotiating institutions required within employment hierarchies
  6. The nature of committees
  7. Unstable committees
  8. Simple negotiation
  9. Complex Negotiation
  10. Requisite Negotiation
  11. Requisite Negotiation in industry
  12. Participation depends on clear negotiating institutions
  13. Conditions of Participation
  14. The results of setting up a unanimous-voting council

(Won’t somebody bring Brown’s books back into print?)

The comments somehow didn’t get imported in correctly. These are the original comments below.

Paul Holmstrom { 04.02.09 at 10:16 }

There is quite a bit of the “old” stuff from the early Bioss days that we will be needing to revive.

We are moving more and more into a networked society. Fewer and fewer people will be in employment hierarchies. Rather than using levels of work and accountabilities we will be having to talk more about self-organizing around capabilities and context setting.

In 10 years time more that 50% of the workforce will consist of the Nintendo and Net generations. If they at all want to work in a traditional hierarchy it will have to build on their knowledge creation abilities and be much more of what Elliott in his early works called a collegiate. We will be needing to revisit Elliott on that and Wilfred Brown on workplace democracy to understand the new type of organization that already is emerging.

Matthew Kalman { 04.03.09 at 03:59 }

Hi Paul and Forrest,

It doesn’t follow in this thread, but I thought I’d let you know that Otto Laske’s new book “Measuring Hidden Dimensions of Human Systems – Foundations of Requisite Organization” is claiming to ‘modernise’ and ‘enhance’ the RO framework.

Otto says that Jaques “headed straight for the cognitive aspect of adult development”, leaving out some “important elements”, which Otto will try to put back. Otto met Jaques once, a few months before he died.

Elsewhere Otto talks about how he’s rethinking and expanding Jaques’ notion of RO, “something he [Jaques] would have applauded”.

I’ve not read the book yet, it’s *huge*! (With two little kids, it may take me some while).

BTW, I did hear about some interesting work looking at the developmental levels of workers in autonomous work teams that were being tried out in Volvo (?) in the 70s (using the Loevinger assessment, amended for more workplace relevance, I think). The basic finding, I think – predictably – was that a certain level of development needed to be reached in the staff, before these automomous teams worked. The chap who did the work – Eddie Molloy – was going to try to dig out some handouts/details etc from the time. Must prod him…

He works at a high level in Ireland now, still informed by Loevinger’s levels – though not using it explicitly.


Matthew Kalman

Forrest Christian { 04.03.09 at 05:52 }

I think Paul probably has some insight into things done in the Swedish auto industry, and hopefully he’ll chime in about Molloy.

There are several people who have put EJ’s work levels into a larger structure of human development, of course, most notably Warren Kinston. I’ll have to try and get hold of Laske’s tome later. I’ll put up a link if you ever do a review, Matthew.

In management, Art Kleiner (editor in chief of “strategy + business”) has tried putting levels of work into a larger framework of management theory. He and Warren have had a recent lively and (IMO) constructive exchange about this, and I got copied on part of it. Kleiner has a presentation floating about somewhere: searching for “Kleiner Jaques” should pull it up after his big EJ article.\\\

Forrest Christian { 04.03.09 at 05:54 }

I should also say that by “BIOSS” I meant “Brunel Institute” and not the company, “bioss”. And I think the ignoring of these aspects of Glacier were probably a function of EJ not being all that interested in them by then.

Matthew Kalman { 04.03.09 at 06:41 }

I have a great article by Kleiner on Jaques somewhere, where he mentions investment banks quietly using Jaquesian analysis of CEO complexity to successfully predict company growth, or something along those lines!

Is that the article you were referring to?

Has anyone written more about such intriguing applications of RO theory?


Matthew Kalman { 04.03.09 at 10:24 }

Just spotted this:

Dr. Otto Laske in interview with Ken Shepard of the Elliot Jaques Society


Must have a listen….


PS By Elliot Jaques Society he means GO Society, I presume…

Al Gorman { 04.07.09 at 10:15 }

I believe Brown’s workplace democratic society, full employee representation and the notion of committees has an obvious intention to serve a workplace need however it introduces complexity, rather than simplicity, adds ambiguity, and does not address the fundamental issue that he intends to resolve in the first place.

Brown’s postulations are predicated on the assumption that one’s supervisor, or manager, cannot adequately represent his or her needs. It defines an absence of clear compelling purpose, workplace trust and values, and disconnects within the contextual understanding of workers and managers. The fundamental problem is one that sees an inequality in the values that are applied and enjoyed within the organization.

It is requisite for workers, and managers within the heirarchy for that matter, to be consulted in formulating decisions that affect them. For example workers should be consulted in matters affecting the execution of their work. If management wishes to alter a worker’s schedule, within the confines of employment law, to meet a business need, management should consult the workers as to their preferences. The manager should not be surprised however that the workers will wish to maintain the status quo and management will need to make the ultimate decision. Should we advance debate among a committee as to the need for the change in schedule? Should we have a committee decide what schedule is required to meet that need? Or, should management consider the feedback of employees, engage in the discussion with them, and then take and implement the decision?

There is a dysfunctional disconnect in most industrial settings that fails to provide workers, and managers, with reasonable autonomy and discretion over their own work. For example many workers are not consulted in the planning of their own work. This is something that they should be accountable for and not be consulted and directed toward. The differentiation is one that provides the “what” in terms of cpQQT/R in the hands of the task assignor and the how in the hands of the task executioner.

Committees, within the context of the workplace, rarely offer anything constructive. They become bodies that are inclined to be consummed by acquiring their own centralized power and authority at the expense of either management or individual workers. We need only look at government to support this conclusion. Within minority governments committees become central forces of power and authority and get hung up on the distinctions that differentiate them and little work gets done. Within the context of majority governments the power is centralized within the government and not the committee and decisions are readily made. The quality of decisions are not as important as the quantity made when one wishes to advance progress. It is decisiveness that matters; the application of judgment, including one’s willingness to back out of a poor choice and alter the course.

We employ people to work. Work is the application of judgment in the process of making decisions to satisfy purpose (preferably clear and compelling purpose) and the fundamental problem is a major focus of managers wrongly sets forth over and over again to remove discretion from workers. This becomes the source of dissatisfaction and it is characterized within organizations that focus almost exclusively upon results as opposed to developing people and systems that enable the delivery of results where individuals can apply their full potential capability.

Forrest Christian { 04.07.09 at 15:40 }

You prove my point when you say, “The manager should not be surprised however that the workers will wish to maintain the status quo and management will need to make the ultimate decision”, which can easily be stated as “your manager will know what’s best for you”. He will listen to your concerns about changes in policy, roll his eyes, and then do whatever he damn well pleases. Everywhere else, Jaques created systems to handle things. This he clearly states as simply being something that good managers would obviously do. It’s a massive hole in his writings, but not in the work at Glacier.

And clearly I disagree and would ask: then someone should know what is better for you?

Nor am I so convinced that committees fail to work. “If only the damned bureaucrats and politicians would get out of the way” has been the rallying cry of engineers but they have shown very little capacity to do things better. National Socialism was the most efficient and effective government in history; perhaps these traits are not all that good. Markets are notoriously inefficient, which is why the early 20th c. capitalists loved monopolies (and supported the Nazis and Soviets to power). But I think that we can say that markets, over time and with some forms of regulation, are superior than single intellects.

Nor are committees always wretched things. Glacier Metal Company seemed to do quite well, and it is worth remembering that Elliott Jaques most brilliant work was done not when he was employed by a CEO but by a committee, the Glacier works council. For that matter, GasForce was employee-owned and is the single most successful “implementation” of Jaques’s ideas, as shares grew 1,500% in just a few years.

A colleague who studied RO says that it has a shadow “fascist” side, that there should be people who control other people. It’s not inherent, he says, but something that lurks beneath the surface, inbetween the lines.

I think the problem is one that Brown had early on: to get the power relationships right, you first have to have right structure. The Glacier Model requires works councils of elected employee representatives, unanimous voting therewithin, a clear appeals process all the way to the CEO, and right structure with felt-fair pay. For Brown, what was Jaques’s great achievement was just a piece of the overall picture. But it was the piece that he had to get right before the other pieces worked.

Kinston’s spiral of Strengthening the Management Culture shows this. You have to get Structure (roles and accountabilities) right before you can move onto the Dialectical / Political phase (power and group struggles). If you speak the Structuralist decision-making language, it’s hard to appreciate the brilliance of Dialectical decision-making processes. It would make sense that most Jaquesians are Structuralist in their decisoin-making approach.

(I think Brown was a Systemicist.)

The reason that workplace democracy and participation goes wrong in most instances is that it is done in the wrong place in the growth spiral. You must first get the roles and accountabilities right before Dialectical processes can really work. And these processes have to have clear definition in policy rather than operational decisions.

Brown, of course, was worried about much bigger game than simple corporations. He worked naturally in the domain of Creating Societal Institutions, and worried about liberal democracy. It was guaranteed to make him opaque to the people working in the discipline of management and organizational theory, and to those who labored in the domain of organizational life (those who managed).

Al Gorman { 04.07.09 at 18:32 }

Nonsense! It is not a matter of your manager knowing what is best for you but rather that your manager knows what is best in the eyes of the organization and considers your perspective. It is all easy if everyone is motivated to the same objectives. The reality is they are not.

You acknowledge that workplace democracy and partcipation “go wrong”… Systems are only as good as the people who administer and are affected by them. There are no perfect systems because there are no perfect people. In the same tone there are no perfect systems of governance. We can argue the virtues and pitfalls of “democratic” America and “communist” China. In today’s context one might conclude that China has advantages over America.

The problem is the conversations are always fixed around either/ or versus and.

At a fundamental level I am employed to apply myself fully to deliver, using my best judgment, the results my employer requires. If my employer is astute he will enable this. Unless his request is illegal I should expect to deliver it. Immoral and injust are debatable and in the eye of the beholder and consequentially in the final assessment I align or I should resign. If there is a consistency in the interpretations of workers my employer may, or may not, decide to alter his approach.

In the end I am the hired help. I am accountable to a manager, the board or the shareholders. I am only accountable to a works council, committee, or some other faction if mangement sanctions it. These are not only abdications of authority but more fundamentally an abdication of accountability and a reckless abandon of organizational purpose.

Forrest Christian { 04.08.09 at 09:43 }

Wow. It really just sounds like you got burned somewhere down your road. I can’t imagine that anything I say would change your mind.

For everyone else, I’ll do a new post about how committees promote better decision-making within a limited area of decisions. The problem with most committees, as Brown states clearly, is that they aren’t in the right area. Some things must be handled within the management hierarchy — this is different from saying that they must be decided by a manager.

Al Gorman { 04.08.09 at 12:27 }


You are correct in your conclusion that I have a very narrow view on this subject. I am not averse to engaging employees as I indicated earlier. I am not at all averse to allowing them to apply their judgment. I am opposed to the notion of workplace democracy and anarchy. I believe the management style should be one that is authoritative, not permissive, not authoritarian, and not neglectful.

The relationship between immediate manager and subordinates is not unlike the relationship between parent and children in the sense of instilling personal responsibility, accountability, and extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Believing that one can have all of his or her employees represented by a few is no different than believing that one of your children can decide for all of them. The notion that promotes that these employees need to be represented by a committee defines in itself that management and employees are on different pages from the onset.

Not only is the manager influenced by his or her own parenting style but so too are all of his or her subordinates influenced by their own parenting styles. Management in many respects requires the undoing of poor parenting, poor self control, poor self esteem, and a willingness to be firm and fair and provide direction. Where the subordinate does not agree with the assignment he or she should receive an explanation as to why it is required and then be expected to execute it.

In previous operations we required changes to shift schedules that were more onerous on employees. We solicited feedback from employees on specific options and then allowed a vote. We even had a committee established. The committee promoted retaining the status quo, promoted changing a number of other things that they had not been asked to review, deferred back to management when it was time to promote the hard sell and change the schedule and then led the bitching for all employees for several years after the change had been made. People understood the need for the change, they understood the options, and they did not want the status quo in their lives upset.

I have countless similar examples. Employees managing by democratic committee simply does not work. Management is accountable to manage. How management manages is important. Again without trying to be condescending there are many similarities between effective management and effective parenting.

Paul Holmstrom { 04.08.09 at 23:42 }

Comment about Volvo in the 70’s

As I was working for Volvo then I should really be some sort of “expert”.

Gyllenhammar, who then was CEO of Volvo, like Wilfred Brown had a political streak, not Labor/Social Democratic but Liberal. He had a belief in a better workplace using more of worker capabilities. As educational levels had increased he reasoned that workers should be able to handle more complex tasks.

A new “experimental” cap plant was set up early 70’s, far from any present production plant. It was not believed that the old car workers easily could convert to new working methods. Like Elliott I have difficulties using the word autonomous work groups, there is always a manager demanding accountability. It is more about removing an “interfering” foreman that does not add value s found in the early Glacier studies.

Cars in the new factory moved around on electro-magnetic “floating” devices. Instead of having one worker doing one small piece of work a group of workers formed a section and did a large number of jobs. All of the people in the group needed the skill set to do all jobs. They were allowed the discretion to decide for themselves who did what and in which order. Production was computerized and real time information displayed showing how a team was doing according to plans.

Their immediate manager was a person with a larger control span than in a traditional factory. Persons with the skills required of a foreman were put into roles as trainers and coordinators, supporting the teams.

Once people were fully trained and found their ways of work the factory had higher productivity and lower quality costs than other parts of Volvo. The factory was in use for 20 years and closed down after the recession in the early 90’s when Volvo had overcapacity.

The skills requirements of workers were high. They not only had to be able to do a variety of jobs, but they had to use their judgement and discretion. Over time many of the learnings were moved into the traditional assembly line, like job rotation, sectionalizing and elimination of traditional foremen roles.

Writing this I find myself somewhat surprised how many parts of industry (and services) are still bogged down in McGregor’s Theory X paradigm, while the work of Brown and Jaques really prove Theory Y – allowed discretion people take responsibility.

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

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