I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath. Like all of his books that preceded it I enjoyed it a great deal. I see Gladwell as kind of a social facilitator and observer. He doesn’t try to present himself as a behavioral scientist with countless reams of data to support his conclusions, he makes comments and observations. The reader has the choice to accept or reject them.

While I enjoyed the entire book the part that most spoke to me was Gladwell’s discussion of legitimacy.

According to Gladwell legitimacy occurs when three elements are present -

  • Those who are governed have a voice in the process; their input is sought and heard.
  • There is a dimension of predictability and consistency in the application of the law or standards.
  • The application of the law or standard has to be administered fairly and objectively, you can’t have disparate treatment without a clear and compelling reason.

The reason I find this discussion about legitimacy so interesting is in its application to the work environment.

For the last three decades I have been promoting and teaching the merits of an employment relationship based on Commitment rather than compliance. When the employment environment is optimized in a commitment based model it results in employee engagement.

I also believe that to a large extent leadership as opposed to management is founded in legitimacy. Leadership is entirely relational versus hierarchical. As a manager you have the authority of your position and the benefit of what Stephen MR Covey calls deterrence, authority that comes from rules or position. We would like to believe that management also incorporates Covey’s second level competence, but I am not sure that is true.

In many cases the competence we rely on in elevating someone to a management role is based on application of their technical skills, their competence is emotional and social intelligence are still considered “soft skills”.

The highest level of trust in Covey’s hierarchy is identity based trust which incorporates both your competency and you character as demonstrated by your applied values and behavior to create credibility.

In my over 30 years as a human resources professional, C level executive, and management consultant it has been interesting to see emerging and current “leaders” bridle at the idea that they have to earn trust. For many it is an expectation that trust is embedded in their role, they shouldn’t have to earn it.

It is very chic today to dismiss collective bargaining and unions as passé, but any student of the relationship between employer and employed realizes that up until the 1940’s the concept of employers need legitimacy through the input of their employees was considered ludicrous.

Unions fought very hard to legitimize their right to bargain with employers over hours, wages, and working conditions. I am not going to say that I believe collective bargaining is the preferred methodology or relationship structure between organizations and employees, but the concept of participating as equals didn’t come from management enlightenment. Many of our current models still have their roots in scientific management-managers manage and people do. If you see people as human capital, what is the likelihood that you are seeking the endorsement of those you “lead”?

Surveys come out every year that reinforce that the most important role played by human resources professionals is compliance by both operational executives and human resources professionals themselves.

Under the old social contract organizations provided a degree of social and economic security in return for loyalty (spelled compliance in my opinion). As the economy became more international we still wanted the loyalty, we just didn’t want to provide the security.

It is interesting in most jurisdictions outside of the U.S. the subjects of bargaining include the introduction of technology into a work setting. In our U.S. model we must negotiate the effects of the technology, but not its introduction.

In creating my own foundation for employee engagement I feel that there are critical elements you have to include.

The first is a foundation of trust. I would go so far as to say you have to have trust at all three levels to experience true engagement.

I also think you need to add the elements of respect, responsibility, information, equitable rewards, and mutual investment.

I don’t think you need to negotiate your culture with employees, but I do think they are entitled to clear expectations, constructive feedback, and fair treatment.

When you provide that kind of context you are allowing employees to join up with you. On that foundation when change is introduced you do it with rather than to people.
Gladwell’s examples of authority without legitimacy are pretty fascinating; the outcomes aren’t pretty.

There is a lot of discussion about the next generations. They are pretty intolerant of assumed legitimacy. They also represent both the future employee base and future leadership.

Perhaps taking a moment and asking ourselves if we are incorporating legitimacy and trust into our leadership models and recognizing and teaching the skills of leadership beyond technical competency is a worthwhile endeavor.

I hope it at least provides food for thought…..


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