In the brief account that follows, Sandeep Baliga provides a glimpse of life in the neighborhood in which I grew up. Although what follows resembles an “urban fable,” it seems true to life.
What lessons about justice and entrepreneurship does it suggest? Who or what is the Leviathan”?
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James is an alley-mechanic – he and his team of five workers repair cars in an alley behind a church on the South Side of Chicago. James rents the space from the church pastor for $50/day. James has been doing business there for twenty years or so. Then, along comes Carl, another alley mechanic. He sets up a garage close to James. Carl hires some homeless people to hand out flyers offering discounts to motorists arriving at James’ repair shop.
James is ticked, to put it mildly. James thinks he has property rights to car repairs in the area – he pays $50/day for this right. He asks the pastor to adjudicate. The pastor is well-known in the neighborhood and often acts as a mediator in contractual disputes. The pastor finds in favor of James. But Carl is not from the neighborhood and does not acknowledge the pastor’s authority. He continues to compete with James.
James turns to an informal court that has developed in the neighborhood. The court arose to settle disputes between rival gangs but it grew to act as a general arbiter of contractual disagreements in the local underground economy. Again, the court finds in favor of James. Again, Carl ignores the determination of the “court” as it has no authority over him. Finally, the pastor is forced to use old-fashioned contract enforcement – violence. He hires a gang of thugs to beat up Carl and his crew and drive them out. End of story
(Source: Talk by Sudhir Venkatesh at the Harris School, University of Chicago)
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Sandeep Baliga is an Associate Professor of Managerial Economics at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. He is a co-editor of the Berkeley Electronic Press Journal of Theoretical Economics.
Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Linda Lausell Bryant, executive director of Inwood House where the focus is on teenagers’ health issues. She says that when a workplace is about teamwork, people worry about their specific roles, not about who has the most power.
To read the complete interview and Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
Photo Credit: Librado Romero/NYT
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Note to Staff: We’re a Team, Not a Family.
A. Bryant: Talk about some important influences for you.
L. Bryant: Part of my background includes conflict resolution training. And I really feel like that has shaped me tremendously. There are understandable tendencies among people to say, “Let’s avoid conflict.” I was trained to really go for it, and find out what some disagreement is about. What’s really underlying it? What are the underlying needs and issues here?
So two people will present the conflict as, “I wanted the red one; she wanted the blue.” Or whatever it is. But is it really about the red or the blue, or what’s it really about? I’ve always felt particularly adept at finding out the underlying psychodynamic issues. The training to not avoid the conflict — to kind of go for it and learn to get comfortable with it — was something that shaped me very much.
A. Bryant: How else does your background influence the way you manage and lead?
L. Bryant: You have to respect not only people’s needs, but also their pain, their vulnerability. A lot of battles are about very personal things. I’m very attuned to the unspoken needs that people play out in the workplace. People are people in whatever setting — they bring their luggage of stuff, we all do — and the dynamics in the workplace are a function of the interaction of what we all have in our suitcases. You can’t change that. You can acknowledge it. You can give it space. You can give it air and light. In the end, it can’t rule the day, either, because in the workplace there are higher things and rules that are going to guide what we need to do here. It’s helpful to know that, and be aware of it as a boss, and it’s even better if employees are aware of it and that they feel that you’re not trying to change who they are.
So I really try to allow people to bring their full selves, and I try to hire with an eye toward: “O.K., what is it that you have? What are these personal characteristics that you have in addition to all your obvious qualifications that would mesh with this organization, that are complementary to what we’re trying to get done here?”
A. Bryant: How has your leadership style evolved?
L. Bryant: Recently, I’ve really shifted my thinking. Our culture reflected our work, which is to create a sense of family for our teens. So our staff would say: “We’re a family. We’re a family.” And I’ve actually said directly to everyone in all-staff meetings: “We’re not a family, because in a family you never can fire somebody like your Uncle Joe. You just can’t. You have to put up with him because he’s family. In an organization, if someone is taking the organization down, we can’t accept that because the organization is bigger than any one of us.”
So I’ve said to them that the analogy that best suits us is, “We’re a team,” and in a team, everybody’s got a role to play. And the team wins when everybody plays their roles to their best ability. The other thing that’s different in a team is that people understand the concept of roles. So if you’re the manager, you have a job to do as a manager. No one, generally speaking, resents the fact that you have authority because they understand that it comes with the role of a manager and that teams need managers. They don’t manage themselves.
But in a family, it is about power. You know, Mom or Dad has the power, and I think the dynamic that often plays out in a workplace is that people project all of their parental stuff. And I remember a job where I actually had to say to my team: “I am not your mother. I’m the division director here. I have a job to do. You have a job to do.”
A. Bryant: How else has your leadership style changed?
L. Bryant: I feel I’ve grown up more as a manager in this job. It’s been a process, but I’ve really grown up because I went from being the charismatic leader, the leader everyone loves — “I love you, and you love me, and we’re a big, happy family” — to being more comfortable with everyone not being happy. I’d like everyone to be happy, but I can take it if they’re not. And I no longer feel like it’s my job to make sure everyone is happy. My job is to fulfill the mission of this organization, and to make sure that all the pieces are in place so that we can do that.
A. Bryant: What changes did you make when you took over?
L. Bryant: One of the practices I initiated when I came on was an all-staff meeting. Get everyone from every level — the cook, the maintenance guy, the executive team — and bring them together to focus on organizational business. One, it’s important to show that everybody’s got a role to play here. Two, there’s the opportunity to interact so that you know you’re part of a whole. And, three, here is some direct communication from me and from your colleagues about what’s going on.
A. Bryant: And how often are those meetings?
L. Bryant: They’re quarterly, and they end up being kind of like these pep rallies where we kind of all come together, and we’re reminded of why we do this. We bond around the challenges. We also connect around our victories — we share inspirational stories around the work and connect around the bigger picture.
A. Bryant: What’s important to you in terms of the culture of your organization?
L. Bryant: People need to know it’s O.K. for them to be human because — and this for me is nonnegotiable — I have to know you’re bringing your full self, your full game. Everything else is negotiable. I’m very tolerant of the fact that people are different, and different things float different people’s boats. But what makes me judgmental and angry is people who might say, “It’s just a job. I’m here for a paycheck.” You cannot work here with that attitude. We won’t tolerate it. Can’t stand it. No excuse for it. I feel like that’s a violation of our corporate values. I’d rather have simple enthusiasm and passion than a genius who couldn’t care less.
A. Bryant: How do you hire?
L. Bryant: Some people are looking to build a career. I don’t have anything against people building careers, but if that’s your primary driver, and this is a steppingstone on the way, then this won’t work. You have to be motivated by more than yourself to do this work. And I don’t apologize for that.
I am looking for core values that are aligned with our organization. I’m looking for a commitment that will transcend the conditions of this work. You’re not going to have a gorgeous office, and there’ll be no Christmas bonus, and you will definitely work more than eight hours a day.
I’m really looking for people who can do hard work because they’re strongly motivated to make a difference, but who can also hold a real high bar for the kids we work with. That’s really important. I know personally it makes all the difference.
A. Bryant: Could you talk more about the hiring process?
L. Bryant: It’s really intuitive. I want to hear about their path. I always like to know where people come from. “What’s your story? Tell me the narrative of your trajectory.” You look for what propelled people in their transitions. “What were you looking for when you went from here to here?” So I like to hear the narrative, but I’m really listening for values. I’m listening for commitment. I’m listening for what they’re looking for here. “What’s this going to really do for you?”
I also am very straight with them about some of the challenges here. I don’t do the rosy sell. When they start on Day 1, I want them to be well aware of the challenges they are walking into so there isn’t a moment where they say, “I had no idea that this was going to be so hard!”
I’m looking for someone who is comfortable in their skin. Is this an authentic person? What do they project, and what will they project to other people on the staff? Will they fit in this organizational culture? And I think about the different levels — I might think I could work with someone comfortably, but how will all my folks on the front line respond to them? And, then, what’s their philosophy around managing people? Tell me about your management style. Tell me what makes you tick as a manager. I also want to know about their philosophy around working with young people.
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times‘ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. His book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, was published in April of 2011 by Times Books.
To contact him, please click here.