Why holacracy may not work for extraverts

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2017

Early in my career, I discovered I was a borderline extravert when I completed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) as part of a management training class. The tool measures psychological preferences among four sets of dichotomies: extraversion / introversion, sensing / intuition, thinking / feeling, and judging / perceiving. While my results showed that I had very dominant preferences in three of the categories, I had only a slight preference for extraversion. I was not surprised to learn that I go back and forth when it comes to being an extravert or an introvert.

The MBTI has been very popular in business circles because it shows how different people on the same team can view problems, process information, and make decisions very differently from each other, and yet, be equally effective. To demonstrate this insight, the class instructor divided our class of twelve into two groups based on our extraversion / introversion preferences, and assigned the same task to both groups. My group - the extraverts - immediately dove into the task, with everyone participating in a free flow of ideas and opinions. We engaged in a lively discussion where we often interrupted each other and sometimes finished each other’s sentences. We completed the task and had a fun time doing it.

When the instructor brought the two groups back together and we compared our results, both groups had come up with a responsive solution to the task. The instructor then asked us if we noticed any differences between the groups. One of the extraverts immediately jumped in and exclaimed how quiet the introvert group was, noticing that for the first few minutes no one spoke as each member was involved in writing notes. And when they did engage in conversation, it appeared very low key and orderly compared to the rowdy extraverts.

As the instructor probed more deeply into the dynamics of the two groups, it became clear that everyone was satisfied with how his or her group operated. It was then that the instructor enlightened us with a valuable lesson about the difference between extraverts and introverts: When it comes to gathering and processing information, introverts like to “think things through,” and extraverts prefer to “talk things out.”

As we all know, we usually don’t begin our business meetings by separating introverts from extraverts. So what happens when these two groups are comingled in the same conversation? Typically, the extraverts’ style of talking things out prevails, leaving the introverts frustrated at the seeming messiness of what often feels like thoughtless debate. If organizations want to achieve highly effective work cultures, chances are they will need to find a way to balance the voices of both the introverts and the extraverts.

Building a Highly Effective Work Culture

Companies who take their work cultures seriously are apt to apply for Fortune’s annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For. Recently, the magazine unveiled the twentieth edition of this prestigious list. At the top of the list for an impressive eighth time in the last eleven years was Google. Google is one of a handful of companies that are perennial members of this distinguished group. Another company that once appeared poised to be a reliable presence on this list is now conspicuous by its absence for the second consecutive year: Zappos. Once renowned for its unique culture and its chosen mission of delivering happiness, the innovative Las Vegas retailer seems to have lost some of its cultural luster.

Zappos, which was founded in 1999, first appeared on Fortune’s list in 2009 when it debuted at #23. It remained on the list for seven consecutive years, peaking at #6 in 2011. During this time, Zappos had built a fun culture celebrated for treating employees and customers as family. Its reputation for turning culture into a corporate asset was so well-known that the shoe retailer needed to establish daily tours to accommodate the throngs of curious visitors who wanted a glimpse of this unique workplace.

The Biggest Holacracy Experiment

Zappos fall from Fortune’s prestigious list coincides with a singular and much publicized event: it’s adoption of Holacracy. In 2012, Tony Hsieh, Zappos’ CEO, attended a presentation by Brian Robertson who described the management system that he had introduced into his software company to eliminate the messiness of human interactions that often prevent organizations for achieving their full potential.

Much of this messiness, according to Robertson, comes from the emotional distress of power struggles that plague traditional bureaucratic organizations. Robertson’s system employs a distributed network of roles within overlapping circles, where people follow very specific rules designed to make sure that all voices are heard as they rationally resolve differences and reach agreements.

Hsieh was so impressed with Robertson’s system, he decided that Holacracy would be the platform Zappos would use to reinvent itself into a self-managed organization. In doing so, Zappos would become the largest company to embrace this controversial organizational model. After piloting Holacracy in Human Resources in 2013, the whole organization adopted the new management system in 2014. Three years into this grand experiment, perhaps it’s time for leaders at Zappos to reconsider the wisdom of this move. And if they do, it might be useful to keep in mind the importance of balancing the needs of the introverts and the extraverts.

A System Designed for Introverts

Because Zappos’ adoption of Holacracy had been a major topic in the business press throughout 2014, I was pleased to have the opportunity in early 2015 to attend a half-day session on the innovative management system. The session was facilitated by one of the trainers who had been part of the team that oriented Zappos staff on the practices and principles of Holacracy.

What became clear very quickly in the session - and what was subsequently reinforced when I read Robertson’s book, Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World - is that Holacracy is a system designed for introverts. I was stuck by how similar the Holacracy practices were to the meeting dynamics that were naturally used by the introvert group in the MBTI training exercise that I had attended many years earlier.

Holacracy values rationality and order. Its rules are very explicit that only one person may speak at a time and usually only when it is your turn to speak. While people are free and encouraged to speak candidly and authentically during their speaking time, there is none of the usual back and forth that is the more natural style of extraverts who like to talk things out.

Because I’m only a borderline extravert, my introvert side appreciated and valued the system’s cultivation of thoughtfulness. However, my extravert side was not at all comfortable with the proceedings. That’s probably because Holacracy successfully reverses the typically dynamics for what happens when introverts and extraverts are comingled by making sure that the introverts’ style of thinking things through prevails. Unfortunately, one of Holacracy’s unintended consequences is that it runs the risk of leaving the extraverts frustrated at the seeming rigidity of what feels like tedious and lifeless interaction.

Messiness Is Not the Problem

As I became more familiar with Holacracy, especially after reading Robertson’s book, I appreciated the sincerity of what he set out to accomplish because I faced a similar task twenty years ago when I was a business executive leading a geographically distributed enterprise where endless debate among business factions thwarted our growth. It became undeniably clear that, if we were going to achieve our growth potential, we would have to stop the endless debate, and that meant designing meetings that worked.

As we set out to design a different way of interacting, I remembered the insights learned in the MBTI class and knew that, if we were to work at our very best, our meetings needed to balance the voices and the styles of both the introverts and the extraverts. Our solution was an innovative meeting format that has evolved over the years into what is now known as the Collective Intelligence Workshop. This meeting protocol became the foundation for a networked-based management system that successfully aligned the dispersed activity of our distributed business.

The secret sauce of our new way of working was the continuous iteration between dynamics designed for the different needs of the introverts and the extraverts. There were times in these sessions where only one person could speak or where only clarifying questions could be entertained, especially early on when we were gathering initial information. There were other times where participants were engaged in small group exercises where the discussion was more free form in the accomplishment of a focused task. At other times the facilitator guided the participants through structured large group discussions where the individuals could build on each other’s ideas, often producing powerful ideas or results as the ostensible messy process morphed into creative insight.

We learned that messiness, in and of itself is not a problem - it’s unresolved messiness that’s the problem. Messiness is often the first stage of the creative journey, and if you structure out all the messiness, you run the risk of killing creativity.

A great work culture is one where creativity thrives because organizations are able to balance the voices of both the introverts and the extraverts in a way that both of these styles feel their voices matter. If Zappos wants to return to the Fortune list, perhaps pivoting to a system that better balances these differing styles might be the solution.

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post.

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About The Author

Rod Collins
Rod Collins

Rod Collins is the Innovation Sherpa at Salt Flats and the author of Wiki Management: A Revolutionary New Model for a Rapidly Changing and Collaborative World (AMACOM Books).