Anticipatory obedience

From Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny

Don’t obey in advance. Anticipatory obedience is one of the greatest constraints on the degrees of freedoms for employee-led change and innovation in organisations.

Our Problem of Anticipatory Obedience

Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do. – Timothy Snyder

I read the paragraph above, in Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, a book about authoritarianism in politics. It immediately hit home, not in the political context but in a corporate one.

One of the big barriers to employee-led change and innovation in organisations is employee’s desire to see explicit permission to act. Part of this is a response to psychological safety issuesPart is a lack of freedom to act.

However, much of the challenge is anticipatory obedience. Employees anticipate the most draconian constraints on their action and effectively bring them into place. They anticipate organisational concerns and prevent them from occurring.

This is a key way in which the culture of an organisation can have a restraining effect on employees ability to collaborate, innovate and change. In Vaclav Havel’s essay the Power of the Powerless, he describes how the act of a greengrocer putting a slogan in the window in a totalitarian regime reinforces a culture of obedience, even if the gesture is empty and merely one of avoiding issues. That sign is a signal to others to tow the line. The greengrocer hides his own wishes and others follow the external signals. If everyone is participating in anticipatory obedience, others follow. Havel says

‘individuals confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system’

Importantly, this obedience and its related reticence to act is often taken by managers as a lack of capability or motivation demanding more command and control. Employees who failed to take their chance to make change find others take their freedom away.

Collaboration and Agile Change

The power of fostering collaboration and agile change for employees in organisations is that it challenges management to allow the right degrees of freedom to fulfil strategy and to create value. It also shows employees that there are alternatives to anticipatory obedience.

Collaboration and agile change also bring managers, stakeholders and other employees into dialogue around the challenges and opportunities in the organisation. Closing the communication gaps and speeding the flow of information helps make employees clearer on what the strategy, goals and degrees of freedom in the organisation are.

When fear rules the system, we don’t make change through announcements or even great strategy. We make change by doing differently repeatedly until others notice and follow along.

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