Toward Developing and Leading Open and Relational Organizations
By Joshua D. Reichard
Open and relational theology can develop open organizational cultures, empower holistic teams, and foster mutually transformative growth.
In this essay, I will share some of my own insights in my journey toward becoming an open and relational leader and developing more open and relational organizations, including some practical tools I’ve appropriated along the way. In prevailing leadership theories, the leader tends to be subject and the followers tend to be the objects. Open and relational theology can help diffuse the subject-object distinctions to develop open organizational cultures, empower relational teams, and foster mutually transformative organizational and professional growth.
Developing Open Organizational Cultures
Open and relational theology helps to inform open organizational cultures. In open and relational parlance, coercion and persuasion are two options for conceptualizing the metaphysical nature of power. If leaders value coercive power, they are more likely to develop organizational structures in terms of coercion; but if leaders value persuasive power in terms of love, they may be more inclined to develop organizations with gentler persuasion in mind.
Our conception of power is reflected in the way we lead and the way our organizations are designed. Coercion involves both the coercer and the coerced: that is, an agent that coerces another agent, and an agent that is coerced by another agent. Coercion diminishes the target agent’s freedom and responsibility, a violation that most would argue—at least in practical terms—is a moral violation. Coercion is reflected in many traditional aspects of organizational structure and leadership practice.
Preoccupation with the hierarchical and coercive dimensions of leadership tends to foster a “closed” organizational culture. Organizational charts, tight supervision, productivity measures, and rigid goals prevail. On the other hand, “open” organizational culture will be designed around mutually transformative relationships, persuasive interaction, and human flourishing. Open organizational cultures are less driven by leaders who exercise coercive power and depend more on gentle persuasion between members of a cooperative team.
Open organizational cultures have organizational structures built around strong and weak persuasion. Performance evaluations will be less oppressive and more self-directed. Productivity will be measured in more holistic ways. Reporting structures will be looser and more oriented toward team than hierarchy. Needless to say, open and relational leaders will strive toward such open and relational ideals.
I have had the opportunity to experiment with some of these ideas in practical ways. Engaging in 360-degree leadership evaluations (allowing followers to anonymously evaluate their leaders), providing a range of choices rather than directives, and de-prioritizing territorialism are some of the strategies I have employed in my own quest toward developing and leading open organizational cultures.
Empowering Relational Teams
In some of the most innovative technology companies, organizational structure is comprised of complex but sophisticated teams. Successful companies empower work groups over traditional hierarchical structures. Such teams are relationally rich: built around loose power differentials, open communication, mutuality, and opportunities for self and mutual actualization through cooperation. Such teams are empowered to solve complex problems together, collaborate, and cooperate across formerly siloed industrial structures. Stating goals, evaluating goals, and measuring goals are not enough; open and relational leaders must gentle persuade others toward the best possible outcomes for one another, themselves, the organization, and the world.
I have tried both formal structures, such as committees with careful minutes driven by parliamentary procedure, and more informal team-based conversational problem solving. Although I still believe there is a place for some formal structures, team-orientation allows people opportunities to contribute to problem solving in ways they might otherwise be reluctant to engage. While they might not be willing to make or second a formal motion, they might be willing to brainstorm possible solutions if they feel like they are part of a team. Power is expressed through relationships rather than organizational charts. When teams are empowered and develop creative solutions to problems, leaders engage in a kind of kenosis: self-giving, others-empowering love.
Open and relational leaders can nurture teams to develop innovative means by which teams can accomplish goals through adaptation and change. Creativity is prioritized over productivity. Envisioning teams in this way provides unique opportunities for shared power over consolidated power, gentle influence over strict coercion, and cooperation over commandeering. In the relational exchange of teams, the “many become one and are increased by one” and more often than not, creative solutions are more than the sum of their parts.
Practically, I have used tools such as the RAPID decision-making matrix to empower team members to make decisions and respect the decisions of others. RAPID comprises designated Recommenders, Approvers, Performers, Inputters, and Deciders for every major decision which must be made in an organization. I have found people appreciate such a matrix because they can respect the roles of their teammates, engage in mutual decision-making, and assume personal responsibility without becoming siloed or territorial. I have found this to be a useful tool for empowering relational teams.
Mutually Transforming Organizational and Professional Growth
Ultimately, open and relational leaders must foster mutual transformation between leaders and followers. Mutual transformation occurs through relational openness, transparency, trust, and vulnerability. Subject-object distinctions between leaders and followers dissolve and leaders change with followers; followers change leaders, leaders change followers and the organization changes as a result. In my experience, engaging in such mutual transformation is not easy; prevailing assumptions about what constitutes strong versus weak leaders are powerful specters which continue to haunt my own journey. However, the most extraordinary moments in my own leadership experience have occurred when I was the most vulnerable.
Mutual transformation requires vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to willingly embrace the pain of love and in so doing, allow that pain to transform both the lover and the loved. Loving from a position of relationality demands strength, for loving is often painful. Such vulnerability reflects humanity’s relationship with God and human beings’ relationships with one another. Oord calls this kind of deep empathetic love “mutuality” and Hartshorne called it “life sharing.”
Open and relational leaders must be willing to submit to change and be willing to engage in helping to change others. In this form of leadership, there is an openness which not only models personal transformation but lives it; not for the sake of the leader as subject changing the followers as objects, but for the sake of mutual transformation. Such openness creates the environment by which trust, synergy, and empathy can be experienced for all members of teams.
I have tried to do this using a three-column chart called “Plus-Delta-Rx.” In team meetings, we reflect and assess together: what went well (“plus”), what needs to change (“delta”), and what is the prescription for changing it (“Rx”)? Such open discussion allows each team member, including the leader, to embrace change in a constructive way. Together, mutual transformation occurs personally and organizationally.
Open and relational theology can help develop open organizational cultures, empower relational teams, and foster mutually transformative organizational and professional growth. If those of us who embrace open and relational theology can model new forms of leadership in our organizations (business, churches, community agencies, etc.) we can perhaps help forge a new range of leadership theories. Deeply grounded in authentic relationships, open and relational leadership is the greatest and most potent power of all.
Joshua D. Reichard, Ph.D., Ed.S., is the President of Omega Graduate School, The American Centre for Religion/Society Studies (ACRSS) and Dissertation Core Faculty at the American College of Education. He is a well-published scholar, focusing primarily on the interface between Process-Relational and Pentecostal-Charismatic theologies. He is a state licensed school superintendent and a Certified Clinical Sociologist.
To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.