Charles Handy on the value of devolving decision-making
Once again, the Roman Catholic Church have been changing our society. The last time they did so was when they pushed Henry VIII – admittedly an adulterer, bigot and drunkard – into becoming the head of the Church of England.
This time they’re changing our society by reminding us of an important part of their faith: a doctrine called subsidiarity. I bet most Catholics have never heard of it, but it’s very important. It’s part of the Catholic Church’s social teaching.
It says that it’s wrong in any organisation for a higher-order body to decide things that could properly be done by a lower-order body. In other words, go local not central, delegate the decision-making to the people nearest the problem.
So for instance, if you’re fighting in Afghanistan, then it’s the sergeant of the infantry platoon who should call down a drone strike on the Taliban, not the colonel in headquarters. Because the sergeant knows where and when he wants the strike to fall much better than the colonel.
Likewise, when I have to go into hospital, God forbid, I want the nurse to monitor my ventilator, not the consultant who booked me in, and who probably doesn’t know how to work it.
Set the decision-making as low as possible and you’ll have a better organisation – livelier and better motivated.
Let me tell you my last personal experience of subsidiarity at work. I was in Brazil on a lecture tour and had left my hotel in Rio when, a day later, I realised I’d left all of my most important belongings – passport, wallet, mobile phone – in the safe of my hotel bedroom.
I rang the hotel as soon as I could and they put me through to the chamber maid, whose name was Biata. I was surprised they didn’t put me through to the manager, but Biata came on the phone saying she remembered me and would have a quick look in the safe and ring me back.
Within five minutes she was on the phone saying, “Yes, they’re all there, quite safe.” She said, “I can leave them with reception if you’re passing this way again, or if you like I can courier them to you in your new hotel – which would you prefer?”
So I said, “Well, if you can courier them to me… ” I was a bit surprised that she didn’t get reception to do it, but she seemed to think she could sort it out.
And she did, because two days later they all arrived, quite safe.
I wrote to the hotel and said, please give my thanks to Biata, and I congratulate you for having the kind of organisational culture in which you allow a chambermaid to book a courier to send important items to me on her own authority.
They replied, “We trust all our employees to do their best for the customer, but I will pass on your thanks to Biata. I’m sure she’ll be pleased to know you got your things.”
So there it was – subsidiarity in practice. And whenever we went to that hotel, the staff were so motivated and responsive to our needs. It shows that if a company gives its staff the authority to do something when they think it’s right, they feel important and proud to be working there.
That hotel definitely went to the top of our list of favourite places to stay.
The idea of subsidiarity can also be extended to the family – to parents. For example, as soon as I thought my children were able to cross the road by themselves, I let them do it. Admittedly I did tie a little luggage label around their waists with our home address and telephone number on it, the same as I did for my dog.
But by giving them the authority to make choices – where they were able to – they could enjoy more freedom, like catching the bus home with friends (which also saved me the trouble of fetching them in the car).
Subsidiarity works in government too. Local government bodies should be empowered to do as much as they can. It’s only when they can’t do a task that it should be delegated upwards to the next higher level.
And it’s the job of management to make sure the lower levels know they’re trusted and have all the resources and equipment and training that allow them to live up to the trust that’s placed in them.
So, trust the lower orders and empower them to take all the decisions they can. In fact, if you start making the decisions that they should be making, it is, as the Catholics say, a form of theft: you’re taking their responsibility away from them.
But if you practise subsidiarity, it’ll make everyone feel more excited about working for you and enliven your organisation.
This is Charles Handy wishing you a wonderful weekend.
Published by William Heinemann, Myself and Other More Important Matters by Charles Handy explores the issues and dilemmas – both moral and creative – raised by the turning points of his long and successful life. Buy a copy below: