Why W.L. Gore are afraid to have open salaries

W.L. Gore is one of the most famous democratic companies in the world. They are 100% owned by employees; there’s very little hierarchy, with leadership occurring organically by people voluntarily choosing who to follow; and a high level of personal freedom for employees to innovate and be autonomous in their roles. It works spectacularly well. They are massively profitable and market leaders in several product areas.

So I was surprised to learn recently that at Gore, salaries are kept secret, which is contrary to the transparency around financial information in most democratic companies.

For most traditional companies where salaries and other financial details are kept under wraps, it’s usually fear driving the behaviour: Fear of the consequences of unfair salaries being discovered or fear of letting go of control of important information. Gore doesn’t seem to have these fears. Colleagues are evaluated by their peers to ensure salaries are set fairly and they have demonstrated in many areas that they are not afraid to give up control. So what’s going on? Why would they not want the benefits of higher trust and scrutiny that fully open books bring about?

Gore say that they have a different fear: They want leadership to be merit-based above all else and they fear that if colleagues know what everyone else earns then they may show a bias towards following the higher earners rather than the best person in a particular context. I can understand the logic behind this, but to me it’s still a practice rooted in fear rather than freedom, possibility and trust (the mindset of the best democratic leaders) so I wonder if they could do better.

Humans are not purely rational creatures and we are naturally biased in many different ways. Even with closed salaries, it’s possible that people may be biased towards following leaders based on age, gender, personality, physical characteristics and many other traits which are even further removed from true merit than salaries. I wonder if having closed salaries is fighting a symptom of bias, when perhaps a better approach would be to educate and increase awareness of bias among all colleagues to help them make more conscious decisions. If they did this then they could enjoy the benefits of greater transparency, and make better decisions about choosing leaders and more.

10 crazy town ideas for extreme organisational democracy

Crazy Frog

Here are 10 ideas that take the principles of organisational democracy to the extreme. In the context of mainstream business today they seem far-fetched but there are organisations in the world who are pushing the boundaries of democracy every year. If you think that these ideas are just too radical for your business, imagine how you will attract and retain the very best employees if you have a competitor who is bold enough to do these things. Will you be able to stand out and remain relevant when someone in your market is doing this? Welcome to the world of extreme organisational democracy.

1 Purpose and Vision

The radically democratic company has a vision and mission that transcends itself and its people. It describes a world that is richer not just for its shareholders but for all of humanity, and the planet. How about a soft drinks company that sets out to alleviate the problem of thirst and water shortage in all of its forms for every human and animal on the planet. Now that would be a real purpose.

2 Transparency

Radical transparency can build an incredible level of trust both within an organisation and with the outside world. It shows you have nothing to hide and beyond that you invite criticism and input into your business. How about publishing every single line item of expenditure in the business? How about turning the 20th century wisdom of ‘secrecy and closedness unless there’s a very good reason to do otherwise’ on its head and publish every item of income, profit, loss, remuneration and even decisions by default – available to all employees, and anyone else in the world including competitors to see. Opening a pandora’s box? Certainly. But who wouldn’t trust an organisation brave and open enough to do this? And what new insights would the company gain from having their inner workings opened up for others to analyse?

3 Dialogue & Listening

What would happen if you invested in training every single person – from the cleaners to the CEO in an organisation – to a professional level as relationship counsellors? OK it might fill you with fear to think of a business full of shrinks and endless meetings on comfy chairs with tea and biscuits. But what would the outcome be when you have truly professional standards of listening and understanding other human beings and a deep ability to forge and maintain great relationships. What would it be like to work somewhere like this? What would relationships with customers and other stakeholders become?

4 Fairness & Dignity

Decisions that impact fairness happen every day in businesses, from allocating work to setting pay. Typically its people with power (managers, directors) who make these decisions and others have to live with being treated fairly or not. How about having a rule that states that any decision made in the company which could impact feelings of fairness or dignity to a group or individual must be scrutinised by a peer-selected group of their colleagues. Yes, it will slow down some decisions, but the gains in loyalty and the removal of the politics of favouritism or discrimination will more than make up for it.

5 Accountability

Democracies are not soft. As Worldblu puts it, ‘they are crystal clear about who is accountable to whom and for what.’ In most businesses, employees are accountable to their managers. In an extreme democracy, people are accountable to everyone they work with or even influence indirectly, AND the outside world. 360 degree reviews don’t go far enough, especially for senior managers. People need to be able to hold anyone to account where necessary, regardless of who they are. Local communities and even activists can be brought closer to the organisation to create deeper accountability with the outside world. But accountability isn’t about blame. In extreme democracies, accountability creates a tight support network.

6 Individual & Collective

Google and other companies famously have ‘20% time’ where they are able to work on projects of their own choosing for one day per week. How about upping this to, say, ‘100% time’? In other words, employees choose ALL of their tasks and projects. To get this right, the collective mission of the company will have to be not just well-defined and understood, but genuinely bought into so that all work supports the mission. You also need to have good accountability in place from peers.

7 Choice

Throw away the rulebook for dress code, working hours, work location, pay reviews and holiday entitlement. Take a punt on assuming that employees can be trusted to make decisions that are fair to them, the business and their colleagues and customers. Crazy right? Not really when you think that this is how millions of freelancers and self-employed people work. Many of the most talented people in the world opt out of the corporate world because they have more choice by going it alone. It works because they are ultimately accountable and have direct alignment with the purpose of their 1-person business. But if we can create this alignment and accountability in a larger business, then why not give them this freedom and choice? The business that is brave enough to do this may never lose a talented employee to a competitor again.

8 Integrity

Google started a change in the corporate world with their mantra ‘Do no evil.’ But that’s just the foundation. ‘Extreme integrity’ is about doing GOOD in all your actions, not just avoiding evil. Imagine a company that has a set of ‘values’ that are more than just filler on the boardroom wall. Values that were created by, and truly believed in by every person throughout the organisation. What if in your culture, every decision and idea is checked against these values as a matter of everyday routine such that it becomes instinctive and automatic. Could you build extreme integrity such that a company can be trusted as much as a close family member or friend? Businesses are made up of human beings with the capacity for enormous integrity so I believe they can.

9 Decentralisation

Do away with the ‘centre’ or ‘top’ of an organisation altogether. A network structure is the ultimate in decentralisation. It is possible to create an organisation that has no ‘top leaders,’ board of directors or even any sort of legal entity. In the extreme democratic future there will be large organisations with the power and impact of large publicly listed companies today that are a mesh of individuals and relationships. The network can swarm together around projects and customer needs, then disassemble and re-form as needed. No formal ‘lines of responsibility’ or control, just agreed roles, responsibilities and accountability that are completely dynamic. Networks are incredibly resilient. That’s why it’s hard to fight al-Qaeda and BitTorrent because there is no ‘head’ to cut off.

10 Reflection + Evaluation

Why not reverse the current trend of business needing to become faster, faster, faster and instead spend more time reflecting and evaluating than actually ‘doing?’ Sounds hopelessly inefficient? Well how about all of the rushed, high-pressured years of ‘doing’ that led to the effective collapse of the global banking system? What would the world look like now if more time had been spent reflecting and evaluating? Perhaps sanity would have prevailed. At Mindvalley, a company in Malaysia, they already hold group meditation sessions to envision the future and reflect on what they are doing. Sounds almost cult-like, and it’s uncomfortable to expose our souls at work, right? But imagine the wisdom and breakthroughs that could surface if we slowed down more, and became more mindful. Perhaps not so crazy after all.

DALAI LAMA

Becoming a democratic organisation: where to start

Start

When Will and I decided to make NixonMcInnes a democratic company we were lucky in that we hadn’t hired any employees yet. This meant we could be democratic right from the start and didn’t have to go through a large change process.

It’s more difficult for established businesses, particularly large ones, who have a well-established legacy culture, systems and processes and people within the company who may not be compatible with a democracy.

Traci Fenton, the founder of Worldblu has defined 10 dimensions of organisational democracy. These 10 dimensions are inter-related and work together to form a democracy, and to become certified by Worldblu, an organisation much benchmark well across all of the dimensions.

The difficulty is that to change an organisation across all 10 dimensions is probably far too big a change to happen in one go, especially in a large business. So where do you start?

Fortunately there are two excellent case studies for this, both for businesses with turnover in the $100M’s range, but what they did is replicable in much smaller businesses too.

Semco, the Brazilian conglomerate, is perhaps the most famous case study of organisational democracy, described by its CEO Ricardo Semler in his books Maverick and The 7 Day Weekend. More recently, Vineet Nayar wrote about transforming the Indian IT outsourcing company HCL Technologies to a democracy in Employees First, Customers Second. I highly recommend all three of these books.

There is a common theme in both of these transformations which was in order to prepare the company for the large changes that lay ahead, the very first step was to build a culture of trust in the organisation. Only with sufficent trust would the organisation be ready for further change.

At Semco, they removed the clocking-in/out machines and abolished the practice of searching employees for stolen goods. And at both companies they set to work creating a deep level of transparency, opening up company finances, performance information and having public forums for discussion about company issues which are dealt with openly. At NixonMcInnes, we borrowed another idea from Semco which built trust by having two open seats at board meetings so employees could come and participate.

All of this helps to build two-way trust, demonstrating to employees at all levels that they are valued and trusted to have access to the inner workings of the company that would previously be reserved for senior management, and showing that the leaders could be trusted by making their work and information visible for everyone to scrutinise and participate in. This new-found trust changed the businesses from being ‘them and us’ to ‘we.’ Both companies then went on to develop across all of the 10 dimensions of democracy, reaping enormous rewards both in market share and profit and in the happiness of everyone working there.

So if you want to change an existing organisation to a democracy then make sure that building trust is your first step.