Women workers employed as wipers in the roundhouse having lunch in their rest room, C&NW RR-1943 Clinton, IA (LOC) Delano, Jack

Why the ‘Who’ in meetings matters: A Requisite Organization approach

Forrest Christian requisite organization 3 Comments

What happens when people in a meeting are different stratum (per Elliott Jaques’s requisite organization theory), knowing each other well enough to have some experience of each other’s capacity? Who leads? If certain people talk, does the conversation die? Does the meeting have to be facilitated by the highest stratum person? Will it be regardless, at least effectively?

This got started by my recently reading an old article by Peter Block (1998, “As Goes the Followers; So Goes the Leader” and the response by Trudy Cooper) about an experiment regarding what he called “patriarchy”. I wonder what the results would have been had he considered stratum of Requisite Organization.

Imagine a meeting with ten people around a table. It’s a mix, but a higher stratum mix and almost everyone is in a five year age-range. The breakdown looks like this:

  • Two people capable of doing work at Stratum III
  • Four people capable of doing work at Stratum IV
  • Two people capable of doing work at Stratum V
  • One person capable of doing work at Stratum VII

Make the discussion about something personal, say a community issue rather than work. Each person is here by choice rather than appointment so eliminate non-desire as an issue.

Further, the meeting is facilitated by a person who is capable of doing Stratum IV work.

What happens? What dynamics play out? What if we simplify it thus:

  • Four people capable of doing work at Stratum III
  • One person capable of doing work at Stratum IV
  • Three people capable of doing work at Stratum V
  • No one capable of doing work at Stratum VII

Now what happens? If the meeting is run at Stratum IV, one would think that this would get the Stratum III engaged. Or do they wait for the Stratum VII or a StrV to set further context?

What happens if one of the Stratum V+ capable persons speaks out on an issue? Will the Stratum III capable people clam up because the conversation has taken a weird turn or will they engage more because that person has set an broader context?

I know that in this case personality would play a part, especially the control and dominance scores (as measured by Human Patterns personality test). If the facilitator has strong control and dominance scores, will she or he even let the higher stratum members speak for long?

These meeting happen rather regularly at work, of course, except it normally looks like Str2/3/4. At least within IT they are quite normal. One would expect control mechanisms to support whomever had the managerial authority (normally a Str3) in order to maintain the illusion of the hierarchy.

I really don’t have any good ideas on this one except that trying to lead a meeting with a higher-stratum person in the room probably means always fighting for control. I’m not sure that Dr. Jaques ever described this in Requisite Organization or anywhere else but I don’t know.

In a way, this is related to the problem of having the boss in the room during a discussion of direction. Inevitably, people will look to him or her for signs of approval or disapproval. George Washington pulled off the “argue your case with each other” with his executive team during the war. He would get them together and have them passionately argue with each other, almost to blows. He would then make up his own mind about the issue. I suppose that they felt comfortable arguing because he felt comfortable being responsible for making the decision.

Women workers employed as wipers in the roundhouse having lunch in their rest room, C&NW RR-1943 Clinton, IA (LOC). By Jack Delano

Comments 3

  1. Hi Forrest,
    I agree: the undercurrents of strata and wider societal status are already in the room, a back drop for everything we try to do.

    I think that to any situation we bring a full range of vulnerabilities, and “hierarchy” is one way to structure that uncertainty. If we want equality, we have to create it consciously. Key ingredients are trust and safety. In my experience, these too are never really “accomplished;” they must constantly be renewed.

    I do a lot of work with labor-management teams. One half of the group in any room are working people, mostly “blue collar.” The other half are managers, mostly mid-level and upper, earning far more than the “blue collar” people. Our task is to function as equals for one hour at a time. The longer term task is to build a true community of interests.

    I don’t believe that the facilitator has to score high on “control” in order to create these conditions, nor does the official leader. It is more a matter of expert facilitation and a group commitment to groundrules (which, like trust and safety) must constantly be renewed. So much the better if the facilitator has a deep respect for individuals regardless of their outer social status! That person finds it a lot easier to create trust and safety. It’s that, more than simple “control” that is powerful in building a group through those “stages of group development.”

    The leader in any group is in the unique position of being able to create safety. The only way to do that is consciously, with a grasp of what goes into creating a safe space and a sense of common purpose. If the leader indulges other needs (superiority, dominance, etc.), that sense of community is hard to maintain.

    While strata and status are always present to some degree, I believe there is also a better impulse, which we can reach, if we bring consciousness and skills. It’s tough to create and sustain community. But to do so, groups must develop a consciousness of patterns and a commitment to altering them. This level of skills and intention transcend the lazy default of dominance and submission, and “strata.”

    that’s my $.02 worth. 😉

    Trudy Cooper

  2. Post

    My ideas have matured and grown since I wrote this. There are many things that are going on here. Values issues are dealt with by everyone in the community (or their representatives) rather than being decided upon by someone on high.

    I think that I’ve got at least 5 different types of meetings discussed here. I was sloppy in my thinking about it. Each different type has to be run differently. And “run” need not imply the need for either a leader or a facillitator.

    I hope that this did convey the idea that everyone’s work, at any level and any paygrade, must have dignity, worth, creativity and discretionary decision-making. So many meetings could be done away with if company’s simply gave proper levels of discretion to people on the front line. But it seems I was talking about work then suddenly talking about community life, and likely thinking about Protestant church meetings.

    You’re making some good points here.

  3. Hi Forrest,
    It amazes me that this conversation has spanned 5 years! I remember well my response to Peter’s article (no longer accessible on the site, as far as I can tell). Facilitation and group building is most of what I do, so I was quite motivated at the time to write in. But I didn’t check back in to that spot at anytime later. (Until yesterday).

    I like this: “So many meetings could be done away with if companies simply gave proper levels of discretion to people on the front line.”

    Yes! Things hum when people can redesign their own work processes, monitor them on their own, and improve them without being asked. I have a client who began a continuous improvement effort three years ago. Originally, I interviewed their very disgruntled customers. On and off in the time since, they contracted with me to provide coaching. Just last week, they asked me to re-interview the customers. They were falling all over themselves in praise of the staff’s service, responsiveness, turnaround time. This is the magic. Yet so many managers use fear, instead. Meetings, then, are occasions for hiding information, covering, avoiding. They are not just unhelpful; they are a chronic illness.

    Thanks for your response. I’m happy to know of this site.


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