Nonviolent Management

Nonviolent Management

Sad smiley

This post is a joke, right? How can a concept so closely associated with our prevailing world of domination and Jackal language, so accustomed to using fear, obligation, guilt and shame to achieve its ends, so mired in the mechanics of systemic violence, ever be nonviolent?

Well, bear with me, for I believe there is a way. A way to achieve the same ends as conventional management. And at much lower human cost. Companies everywhere seem to be waking up to the benefits of an “engaged” and motivated workforce. Fewer seem to understand the causal link between the domination system of traditional management and the widespread passive disaffection and disengagement of employees today.

So, for starters, here’s a list of some of the key things that “management” does:

  • Organising and coordinating the activities of a business, so as to achieve defined objectives.
  • Understanding markets’ and customers’ needs and wants.
  • Prioritising and allocating resources, such as equipment, premises, attention, money and people.
  • Helping and directing various efforts towards a definite purpose.
  • Exercising power and authority in making decisions and overseeing an enterprise and its endeavours.
  • Measuring and monitoring progress.
  • Artfully getting things done, with and through other people, in formally organised groups.
  • Forecasting and planning, organising, directing, co-ordinating and controlling (analyse and adjust). (Fayol)

The Belief System Underpinning Violent Management

Douglas McGregor described well the belief system underpinning much of traditional management. He labelled this “Theory X“:

  • The average human being has an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it if he or she can.
  • Because of their dislike for work, most people must be controlled and threatened before they will work “productively”.
  • The average human prefers to be directed, dislikes responsibility, is unambitious, and desires security above everything.
  • Judgement of individuals is a natural and human behaviour.
  • Extrinsic (imposed) discipline – in the form of targets, directives, rules, policies, etc. – is a normal component of the work landscape.
  • Use of coercion, fear, obligation and guilt is both just and necessary.
  • People who resist subjugation and refuse to be complicit in this scheme of things are judged as troublemakers and should rightly be marked for punishment and/or retribution.

So, looking at both the above lists, I posit there’s nothing in the first list that requires the belief system described in the second list (with the possible exception of Fayol’s definition).

How Might Nonviolence Work in Management?

As in other posts, I’ll just briefly recap on the four steps of nonviolent communication:

  1. Say what you saw, or heard (a simple evaluation-free statement)
  2. Say what you felt (it can help, initially, to pick from a list)
    “I feel…”
  3. Say what you need (again here’s a handy list)
    “…because I need/value…”
  4. Make a request (the concrete actions you would like taken)
    “Would you be willing to…?”

So, how might nonviolent management work, in practice?

Instead of telling folks (specifically subordinates, so-called “direct reports”) what to do, the nonviolent manager may, through the four steps, communicate thusly:

  1. Say what she has heard or seen that is relevant to i.e. the running of the business.
  2. Say what she felt upon hearing or seeing that thing.
  3. Say what she needs (sometimes on her own behalf, sometimes on behalf of her unit, or the business as a whole).
  4. Make one or more specific requests (non-demanding, positive and actionable).

This begins to look somewhat like the notion of “Commander’s Intent” from e.g. Auftragstaktik (Mission-type tactics), and the interactive exchange of Commander’s Intent with subordinates’ questions and concerns, during the mission briefing.

An Example

To get a better idea of how this could work in practice, let’s follow a nonviolent conversation between a Manager and her team:

  1. “I heard yesterday from the CMO that we’ll be launching a big marketing campaign at the start of next month.”
  2. “On hearing that, I felt nervous because I’m not sure we can get the new version of the product ready for launch by that date.”
  3. “I need to understand both the likelihood of us being ready, and some options in case we’re not.”
  4. “Simon, would you be willing to take a look at where we are on the product update and get back to me with a confidence estimate for an on-time launch?” (Assuming he agrees:) “How much time do you need for that? What else might you need?”
    “Sally, Joe, Annie, would you be willing to work together to come up with some alternative options in case we miss the deadline?” (Assuming they agree:) ” When can you let me have those options by?”

And of course, the conversation may well go back and forth rather more than shown in this short example, with the manager asking her people how they feel about her requests, what needs of theirs are (and are not) being met, and what requests they might have in response. Some might call this negotiation. I’d favour calling it “mutual exploration of the mission”.

Personally, I’d feel much happier to see the folks work out something like this together, in a spirit of fellowship. But in the traditional organisation, we generally have an obligation to work within the tramlines of the management hierarchy. Such is life.

I have had, occasionally, the pleasure to work with managers who, sensitive to the deleterious effects of coercion and violence on morale and engagement, have adopted and cultivated their own style of management not dissimilar in practice to the example laid out here.

Social Styles

Everyone is different, and “Social Styles” (from Wilson Learning) can help us both appreciate those differences, and adjust our styles of interaction to suit others’ styles. In the Social Styles model, there are four basic styles in which folks like to receive (and convey) information:

    • Analytic – wants numbers, data and facts
    • Driver – just wants to know when something will be done.
    • Amiable – likes to chat about various peripheral things in the course of an interaction
    • Expressive – tends to talk about feelings, emotions and state of mind

I mention this because some archetypal “drivers” might baulk at the time necessary to have such conversations. In “Warfighting“, the US Marines (not known for hanging about, jawing) understand the need to take the time to allow subordinates to understand the mission, contribute to the conversation, and then exercise proper “topsight” and bottom-up initiative. To abbreviate a quote from Dwight D Eisenhower: “Planning is indispensable”.


Hopefully, in organisations where management and hierarchy have not yet given way to more enlightened forms of coordination and control, this nonviolent approach to management can blunt the psychological damage and consequent dysfunctions of today’s much more prevalent “violent” style of management.

Your views?

– Bob

1 comment
  1. This blog makes sense, as it assumes that managers are also people (just like the workforce, the employees, whatever you want to call them), who are doing the best they can given what is expected from them (both by their employees and their managers) and the position that they are in.

    I’ve worked with several project and line managers who worked in a non-violent or positive way. Often I wasn’t aware that we collaborated in that way, because it felt natural, good. But along the way I discovered that the team and the managers were getting more done, and created a stimulating culture. And if there was a problem, it was much easier to walk over to my manager and talk about it. You’re not being blamed as a messenger, but appreciated as professional who’s given useful information, early, when all options are still open.

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