Cover page

Table of Contents


Praise for Never Mind the Bosses

Title page

Copyright page




Terms of deference

A quick summary for busy people

Starting the change process

The SPEED model

A call to everyone and, in particular, a call to management

Chapter 2 MAKE MY DAY, PUNK!

Swearing, blasphemy and other obscenities

Stencils, spray cans and cut-outs

Nietzsche would have been proud

The DIY (do it yourself) ethic

And the battle lines are drawn

How did the establishment express its anger?

The punk movement in the cold light of day

And what of punk today?


A brief examination of the deference dynamic

It takes two to tango

A comfortable dissonance between public and private spheres

Taking the lid off the deference relationship

And even though the deference contract lies on the floor with muddy boot prints on it . . . 

Time for a closer look


The octopus: A metaphor for the modern operating environment

Six ways in which deference is a drag on organisational success


The fight for individualism

Collective uprisings

David and Goliath battles

Enablers, catalysts and the means for change


1. Symbols

2. Psychological contract

3. Executive powers

4. Engagement

5. Discourse

Like turkeys voting for Christmas?


Praise for Never Mind the Bosses

“If you are looking for a book that will shake up your thinking about how to improve your organization’s performance – or worried that your competitors will find it first! – try this one. Ryde argues that the future is emphatically not about execution, but is instead about exploration – and, he says, bosses and authority are obstacles to creative, effective, joyful exploring. This book challenges you either to join the revolution – or be swept away by it.”

Professor Dutch Leonard, Harvard Business School & Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government

“I love this book! It turns the traditional leadership concepts upside down. A must read for anybody who wants to capture the power of their whole organisation.”

Sally Martin, Vice President Commercial Service, Shell International Petroleum Company

Never Mind the Bosses makes a compelling and absorbing case for replacing unquestioning deference in organisations with the need for everyone to take up not only their rights, but critically, their responsibilities for the greater good.”

Kai Peters, CEO, Ashridge Business School

“A powerful reminder that deference has no place in an accelerating world, where only the most innovative organisations will thrive and prosper.”

Ben Page, Chief Executive, Ipsos MORI

“At last, a manifesto for undermining the deference that suffocates many of our societies and organisations. ‘Know your place’ is how many of us are introduced to the world of deference but Ryde has a better initiation ceremony in his post-deferential vision: ‘Earn your place’.”

Professor Keith Grint, Warwick Business School

Never Mind the Bosses is a refreshing type of management book, it advocates that deference to authority figures needs to go if we are to have engaged workforces. In the era of too few people, doing more work and feeling job insecure requires a different, more engaging and less status conscious cadre of managers, and this book argues the case in an excellent and very readable way . . . a must buy for those interested in the new breed of manager.”

Cary L. Cooper, CBE, Distinguished Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health, Lancaster University Management School

“This is a fascinating book. Robin Ryde makes a persuasive case that our traditional deference to authority is dying out, and he shows how the world of business can harness this sea-change in attitudes to become more responsive and agile in the face of economic uncertainty.”

Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, London Business School

“An engaging and entertaining romp through the post punk world. By going beyond the boundaries of most business books, Ryde gives us all food for thought about how organisations are, or are not, dealing with a rapidly changing society and workforce.”

Jo Owen, author of How to Lead

“A riveting read – unexpected quotes from The Damned and Donald Rumsfeld grabbed my attention and held it – bags of leadership insights in here, entertainingly and memorably presented.”

Iain Lobban, Director, GCHQ

“No more tugging the forelock, deference needs to be earned through actions not hierarchy and history. Robin Ryde sets a new agenda for working relationships in modern management.”

Tim Williams, People Director, Pearson UK

“A properly thought-provoking read that challenges business leaders to assess the extent to which they ‘f**k up’ their business and gives confidence to the next generation to challenge them not to do so.”

John Shaw, HR Director, DST Global Solutions

“For any leader trying to make sense of an increasingly complex world Never Mind the Bosses is a must read. Robin Ryde is bang up to date with the examples and illustrations that he uses, and writes in a style that is very readable, making his thinking and observation highly relevant in the real world today. Highly commended!”

Steve McGuirk, CBE, Greater Manchester County Fire Officer and Chief Executive

“Challenging the egos and dominant leadership styles which have contributed to some of the worst economic and corporate disasters of our time, this book takes employee engagement and empowerment to a new level. Robin’s thought provoking insights are a must for the modern leader.”

Simone Hemingway, HR Director, formerly Alliance Medical and Serco and writer

“An excellent read with a central proposition that’s intuitively right but also thought provoking and challenging. Robin Ryde is essential reading for today’s leaders.”

Althea Efunshile, Chief Operating Officer, the Arts Council England

Title page


When I was 13 years old I sat down and wrote a personal letter to one of my favourite punk bands. The band was Crass and they were known for producing uncompromising, political, raucous and, for me, thoroughly exhilarating music. I had bought a few of their singles and also one of their albums called Stations of the Crass which sported the characteristic black & white cutout imagery and stencilled artwork, and the words “Pay No More Than £3.00”. Even though this was quite some time ago, £3.00 was a low price for a record and, as far as I knew, Crass were the only group around that would force record retailers to keep their prices down in this way.

I wrote a fairly long letter, asking about their music, from what it meant to whether they really thought anarchy was a good idea. I think I may even have asked why, on one of their notably feminist albums, that none of the male members of the band made an appearance. While I couldn’t pretend for a minute that I really understood the fullness of their ideology, I knew deep within me that there was a profound truth to the idea that monolithic institutions needed to be challenged, to be held to account and to show more respect to the people they were meant to serve. Crass were angry and I was angry too about what I saw around me growing up and what I was told that I had to be like in order to progress in life.

I put the letter in the post with a soaped postage stamp on the envelope (this enabled the recipient to re-use the stamp by simply washing off the imprint made by the processing mark), and wondered what, if anything, might happen.

Just a few weeks later a letter tumbled onto the doormat and I clattered down the stairs like Bambi trying to run for the first time. My heart was racing as I turned over the envelope to see my name “Robin Ryde” written in hand. With the exception of birthday cards, this may have been the very first letter I had received that was personally addressed to me. I ripped it open and out fell badges, stickers, and a long, hand-written letter by none other than Steve Ignorant, the lead singer of Crass. I cannot even attempt to tell you how exciting this was. I had received personal contact from the punk group that I had adored. But more than this they had taken the time to respond directly to me, addressing my thoughts on an adult-to-adult basis. They didn’t treat me as if I was foolish or incapable of understanding the ideas that were being discussed.

The more that I became involved with this kind of music and the ethos associated with it, the more meaningful it was to me. And during this period of my life I learned a great deal about the importance of questioning authority, of not taking on face value what I was told. I learned about the liberating notion that if you have an idea and the ambition, then you didn’t need the right credentials, or background or even money; you could find a hundred creative ways instead to go ahead and Do It Yourself. This DIY ethic inspired me to produce artwork, to write ‘fanzines’, to form bands, to create networks of like-minded people across the world and to educate myself. I learned too how bands like Crass and the Subhumans would choose not to patronise their audiences. They would encourage fans not to defer to them but to go on the journey with them. And if their fans felt they could do better, then that is exactly what they should do – form a band, create some art, write a book – whatever it was.

Moving forward a number of years, when I had exchanged my ripped T-shirts for a suit, and passed through a series of organisations big and small, I started to worry about what I saw. As someone who was carving out a career initially as a senior executive, and eventually as a Chief Executive, it struck me that organisations often operated in a way that created the exact opposite of the innovative, questioning and ambitious mind-set that I had experienced when I was younger. What was going on here? Surely organisations wanted to hear the ideas of their people? Surely managers wanted workers to have bold dreams and ambitions? Surely talent was an asset that should be unlocked, not held down? And surely putting decision-making power in the hands of a small and narrow band of bosses carried a lot of risks?

Of course before this period when I, and many others like me, invested so much of our time and energy in developing ideas, materials and offering our creative effort, we did it entirely for free. And yet in the workplace, with everything seemingly in place to inspire the best results – a wage, a purpose, resources, organisation, leadership and so on – the result was simply depressing.

It had become very clear to me that organisations preferred control to liberation. And control was something that was operationalised through deference. People were expected to defer to the structure, to defer to rank and seniority, to defer to the Board, to defer to people who “knew better”. Deference was like a spell that lowered the volume on the juniors, and raised the volume on what the seniors had to say.

Interestingly, for me, I reached this conclusion not at the start of my career, but after I had risen up through the ranks. It was not a belief born out of resentment for never having been allowed to have my say. Rather, I came to this view when I understood that working in this way, with deference at the heart of organisational life, did not release a fraction of the potential that people had to offer. Furthermore, allowing so much power to sit in the hands of a small, often non-diverse and unassailable group of senior people was irresponsible. And if we wanted proof of this final point then we need look no further than high profile failures of governance stretching from the Enron/Andersons scandal to the Global Financial Crisis through to the 2012 Barclays rate fixing scandal.

These are some of the reasons why I wrote this book.

It’s funny how things end up. Over 30 years on, and I have now come full circle. I find myself having written two letters asking for permissions to quote the lyrics of Steve Ignorant and Penny Rimbaud, of Crass, and of Dick Lucas, lead singer with the Subhumans – another profoundly inspirational figure.

It is perhaps not a surprise to know that all replied quickly and, without hesitation, gave their full support. Sentiments like this response from Dick Lucas capture the continuing attitude of encouragement for creativity and generosity of spirit embodied by the punk movement:

“Hi Robin, of course! Quote ahead! I feel chuffed to be chosen as an example…it sounds right up my street. Good luck with it”

Dick Lucas

For those reading this book, my hope is that it will do two things. I hope it will inspire people to bring more of themselves to what they do, and to have the confidence to bring their ideas and creativity to their endeavours, whatever they may be. And secondly I hope that leaders and managers in charge of organisations will see that there is not only a viable alternative to the traditional model of business, but that there is a far more powerful and ethical way to operate in the modern environment.


“I feel a very unusual sensation – if it is not indigestion, I think it must be gratitude.”

Benjamin Disraeli

Thanking people is very important. This book was a struggle in many ways. What I was seeking to do was write a business book with a difference; something that has energy and bounce, that isn’t stuffy or impenetrable, and a book that, above all, doesn’t pull its punches about what needs to change. Getting there was only possible because people around me were honest, supportive and brought their ideas to the project. I am very grateful to those that have done this and the book is a great deal better for it. I wanted to give a flavour of some the comments that were offered as the book was taking shape. There were many more like this and many made me chuckle as these did:

“Robin, I think you need to manage your copy writing tendencies with what is actually going on…you need to watch yourself. On occasion it felt like you were going beyond what is real”

Henry Broughton, former colleague and friend

“Robin, I believe the ‘JJ’ you refer to in chapter 1 is actually GG Allin. Actual name on his birth certificate – Jesus Christ Allin. No parental pressure there!”

Bill Schaper, former colleague and friend

On Chapter 1: Make My Day Punk! “What, no mention of Mick Hucknall? He did after all form a punk band – The Frantic Elevators”

Mark Nelson, friend, former colleague and photographer

With regards to the XXXX example, it might be worth considering just spelling it out. There may be legal issues in doing so. But, ironically, by not stating who and which organisation you are talking about, you are showing some deference to the old boy!”

Henry Broughton, former colleague and friend

Regarding an excerpt in Chapter 3 “As I write these words I am currently having my bathroom updated with new tiling, plumbing etc. In the course of this project deference is a hugely important and efficient feature of the decision-making process. On matters of aesthetics and overall style, I defer to my partner.”

Marilyn Tyler, friend, writes on the manuscript “and it’s a good job too!”

Regarding the title (and its reference to the Sex Pistols album) “Isn’t there a danger that people will associate it with bollocks. Which I am sure it isn’t.”

Gary Cowen, friend, always honest and polite

The initial concept for the book was developed by a small team comprising myself and:

Lisa Sofianos and Charlie Waterhouse (The Ideas & Research Team)

I am enormously grateful to Lisa and Charlie who were involved throughout the whole process from conception to delivery. Charlie, a friend, Creative Director at and compulsive purchaser of vinyl spent a long time with us developing the concept as well as working on cover ideas, introducing fresh angles, supplying provocative news articles and offering great support throughout. Lisa, Executive Coach, Gen Y advocate and a partner in the business at, researched at length our coverage of high profile strikes against deference such as the Arab Spring 2011, Richard Dawkins and his ambitious attempts to have the Pope arrested, and the state of play in growth countries such as China and India. Lisa helped to construct the arguments for the book and was thankfully resolute about the belief that Punk should be a central component to the book. Lisa brought some stunning ideas and introduced some of the best insights the book has to offer.

The writing effort was enhanced by the challenges, provocations and editorial input from a lot of people, many of whom are close personal friends in the UK but also in the US, Canada, New Zealand, Brazil and so on. I would like to express my enormous gratitude for this input from:

Julian Powe, Linda Macpherson, Mark Nelson, Jennifer Craythorne, Bill Schaper, Sophie Everett, Henry Broughton, Marilyn Tyler, Simon Vagn Larsen, Phil Greehalgh, David Meikle, David Piemeister, Gary Cowen, Andrew Fox, Robert Chatwin, Sarah Allen, Debbie Hantusch, Neil Barns, Richard Cannon, Alex Butler, Kenny Butler and Richard Bell (Our Commentators, Critics and Sounding-Boards)

The Oxford Group, a strong international player in the field of leadership development, management development and executive coaching, were highly supportive throughout and I would like to give particular thanks to members of the Oxford Group team, namely:

Sheena Porter, Nigel Purse, Nina Griffiths, Olivier Herold, and Nick Cowley (The Oxford Group)

I would like to specifically thank the team at John Wiley & Sons who have been simply fantastic. They are a really professional outfit and have been a joy to work with. They have been, for me, an important part of the creative process and I am delighted to have had this privilege:

Rosemary Nixon, Nick Mannion, Michaela Fay, Marion McConnell, Samantha Hartley, Tim Bettsworth (John Wiley & Sons Team)

I would like to give thanks to Steve Ignorant and Penny Rimbaud of Crass, Allison at Southern Records, Dick Lucas of the Subhumans, and to The Damned for allowing me to quote their lyrics in the book. Thank you to these bands and to a whole host of other punk groups for their inspiration.

Finally, I would like to dedicate this book to some of the most important people in my life:

Lisa Sofianos, Jackson and Frankie, Leon Sofianos, and Stella and Les Ryde – the two people that most certainly bore the brunt of my own personal strikes against deference back in the day.

Artwork by Charlie Waterhouse


Chapter 1


Hastening the Death of Deference

This is a ‘management’ book.

It is a book about organisations and how they can be made better – more agile, relevant and higher performing.

It is a book for anyone who is inspired by the possibility of different ways of working: people who see energy, potential and talent being wasted in organisations every day, and want to look at the alternatives. It should be of keen interest to people who lead businesses, or manage others, or shape organisations or who are just plain curious about how to modernise corporations and institutions.

But this is also a book with a heart – a spirit in fact.

On an unprecedented scale, the death of deference is empowering and liberating previously disadvantaged people. It is a force that is changing the way people and institutions interact with one another. It is sweeping the globe with very few cultures left untouched by it, and most being transformed by it. It is a mechanism for liberation and the release of unbounded potential.

Few walks of life are left unaltered. In this book we will look at different examples of this. We will look at the punk music explosion of 1976, the relationship between men and women, the revolutions in the Middle East, the dynamic between doctor and patient, and to old, established and hierarchical cultures found in rapid-growth countries such as China and India. All of these dynamics are imbued not with staidness but with a great sense of deep change with regard to deference.

Our main focus in this book, though, is on the place of work. It seems a good place to look. Well over three billion people in the world go to work each day.1 Work is what we do. It is where we go. It is the engine that drives economies and learning. It is, if configured well, one of the most important and exhilarating things that we do in our lives.

The argument offered in these pages is that the death of deference is a good thing. The demise of the attitudes and behaviours that keep deference alive is good news – for work, business and for societies. But the proposition entertained in these pages is that this is a death that needs to be hastened, moved forward and accelerated. The sooner we can bring an end to deference, the sooner we can enjoy the benefits. And here and there, in pockets of societies and in parts of organisations across the globe, we can see deference on the decline, and along with it the benefits of new forms of organisation being born. But there is no doubt that, despite the progress being made, our fingers should continue to tighten firmly around the windpipe of deference, to remove a system that, frankly, we no longer have a use for.

But not everyone will necessarily agree with this. We know this.

In the discussions that I have held with people about this concept, it became clear to me, at a very early stage, that the notion of the death of deference is somewhat divisive – not intentionally, of course, but it is an idea that nevertheless tends to divide people into two roughly equal camps.

On the one hand, we find a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement expressed in reaction to the idea. About half of the people we talk to see the death of deference as a good thing, something that corrects the balance between those with power, position and privilege and those without. The enthusiasm often reflects the sentiment that ‘it’s about time’ change occurred – for too long we have submitted to the judgements and decisions of people who don’t necessarily have the answers or our best interests at heart. Deference is seen in these terms as an unwelcome means of control, a mechanism that keeps people in their place.

The other half of people we talk to about the death of deference offer a different, opposing position. To this group the principle of deference is seen as good; it is right that we should defer to people who are in positions of responsibility; after all, they are there because they often have something we don’t, be that expertise or obligations to fulfil, insights or even wisdom. In short, there are people who do in fact know better than we do, and deferring to them is simply the smart thing to do. But this group also sees a natural order of sorts in the execution of deference; and to operate in organisations or societies where deference did not exist would be to call for disorder; this group often conceives of a degree of moral rightness to the principle of deference.

You don’t of course need to decide which camp best expresses your feelings on the subject, and for the purposes of this book you are encouraged above all to withhold judgement, at least for a while. But to give a proper account of the topic, it is important that when talking about deference we share the same understanding of terms. And for those who find themselves wavering between these two opposing perspectives, this definitional contribution may help.

Terms of Deference

The word ‘deferential’ can be traced back to the Latin word deferre, comprising two parts: de, which means ‘down’, and ferre, which means ‘carry’, which taken together refer to the act of carrying oneself down, or bowing down to authority. For the purposes of this discussion, ‘deference’ refers to a behaviour of automatically yielding or submitting to the wishes, judgements or rulings of so-called superiors. Words associated with this process include acquiescence, compliance, obedience, biddability and submission. As we will learn later in the book, this is not a one-way process but in fact represents a form of contract between deferrer and deferred to.

It is important also to be clear on what is not meant by the death of deference, what specifically is not being called for:

  • The behaviour of respect, for example, remains a critical value and one that is essential for the conduct of business and human relations. Respect should not die along with deference; this is not what we are asking for.
  • The death of deference is not about choosing to devalue knowledge, expertise or experience. If anything, it is about cherishing these qualities to a much greater extent – through the invitation of more, diverse voices into the decision-making process.
  • And finally as we hasten the death of deference we are not looking to inspire dissent in relation to every single judgement that might be made by the ‘deferred to’; well, perhaps just every other judgement!

A Quick Summary for Busy People

For organisations, the fundamental problem with systems of deference is that they cause a drag on organisational performance and on the ability to change.

The context for organisations is relevant in considering the contribution of deference.

The modern operating context is characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity; we see this with technological change, economic shifts, generational factors, interdependence between systems (for example banking systems), environmental pressures and so on, all of which place a requirement on companies to be agile and responsive – if nothing else, to keep up. For many years we have talked about this environment but never before has it been so palpably real, and never before has the ambition to survive and thrive depended so much on agility, pace and inventiveness.

The core problem with systems of deference is that they serve to block many of the essential ingredients required to succeed in these circumstances. Deference stands in our way, rather than facilitating the right organisational response.

Systems of deference create ‘them and us’ cultures; they divide rather than unite people within organisations. Importantly, too, they quieten the voices of the deferrers in ways that cause employees to refrain from offering their ideas, their discretionary effort and their emotional commitment. The diversity of voices, ideas and solutions that might otherwise flow through the organisational system become muted and in their place can be found a narrow band of judgements asserted by the most deferred to in the organisation. The more deference there is, the narrower the band of judgements on which organisations rely. Deference acts like the fatty deposits that build up in arteries, restricting the flow of fresh, oxygen-enriched blood across the system.

Furthermore, by concentrating decision-making power, authority and responsibility in the hands of the deferred to, as we witness in so many organisations, the opportunities for broadening and sharing responsibility are significantly reduced. In deferential organisations when the leaders of the organisations stand up and announce the ‘next big thing’, the workers smile and wish them good luck, very often not feeling it is their (the workers’) responsibility.

So it is no surprise during times of change that deference drives acquiescence to the new ways of operating called for by the deferred to, but it does not drive authentic commitment to change. As such we see a behaviour best described as ‘consent and evade’, where employees seeking to avoid challenge or unwelcome scrutiny from the deferred to give indications of their consent for change, but ultimately evade it, a bit like the teenager who is told to wash their hands before dinner only to go upstairs and run the water in the hand basin for as long as it would take, without their hands once getting wet. And not only does this create problems in its own right, it generates difficulties relating to detection. As leaders look across the organisation, they might just see their workers giving the thumbs up as if they were on board, but the phenomenon of ‘consent and evade’ tells a different story.

And as for governance and ethical business, systems of deference have for far too long enabled critical and influential decisions to remain unchecked and unchallenged because the decision-makers are treated with high levels of deference. From examples ranging from Enron/Andersons and the global financial crisis to the British Members of Parliament expenses scandal and the fascinating instance of the CEO of an Indian company who literally invented thousands of non-existent employees to strengthen the company’s figures,2 we see how deference insulates decision-makers against appropriate challenge.

In summary, the kind of organisations that high levels of deference create is shown in Table 1.1.

Table 1.1 The Kind of Organisation that Deference Creates

Deference is strong Deference is weak
Hesitant, guarded dialogue Quick, free exchange of dialogue
A fear of failure The confidence to innovate
A passing on of responsibility A shouldering of responsibility
A controlling mindset An empowering mindset
Ethical inconsistency Ethical integrity
An illusion of support for change Authentically supported change
Under-utilised talent Well-leveraged talent
Division and a ‘them and us’ mindset A strongly unified organisation

Starting the Change Process

Recognising that deference impedes organisational success is a first-order objective. It is hoped that the remainder of this book will convince you of this.

For those in receipt of deference, this can be a hard point to accept, not least because it implies, correctly, that the associated privileges afforded to the deferred to need to be challenged. The saying ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’ may spring to mind at this point. But this is not only true for the deferred to. Systems of deference for all concerned can provide a rhythm to business life and can be order-creating. They provide a decision-making hierarchy in which we can see our place; they offer us predictability, some comfort and some protection, providing that we fulfil our roles and honour the implied terms of the ‘deference contract’.

The tacit deal regarding systems of deference is that while the deferrers are expected to yield to the judgements of the deferred to and not to challenge their authority, they are in turn expected to fulfil their obligations, for example to take responsibility for the well-being of the deferrers, providing them with guidance, stability and protection. Similarly, as the deferrers are expected to show respect and trust to the deferred to, even endure hardships at their behest and to go the extra mile, the deferred to are accordingly obliged to provide fair treatment, objective, accurate information and absolution should the deferrers err in some way.

Think about how this dynamic is repeated to varying degrees in relations between state and citizen, between parents and children, between organised religion and believers, in patriarchal and matriarchal societies between men and women, between management and workers and so on. All of this occurs without explicit agreement being reached or the terms being discussed.

With all this in mind, it is perhaps no surprise that changing this co-dependency can be tough. And that is even when we acknowledge the negative impact of deference on organisational performance.

But there is a momentum to the decline in the deference contract. Evidence points to a breakdown in many aspects of this deal – sometimes a quick breakdown, sometimes slow, but a clear breakdown nevertheless. As big corporates and major institutions mislead or fail to protect their people, trust from the deferrers begins to falter. The examples of the global financial crisis, the Freedom of Information boom, Wikileaks, the social-media-enabled Arab Spring of 2011 and even isolated cases such as the 2012 Concordia cruise ship disaster, where the ship’s captain was accused of failing to fulfil his obligations to protect the passengers, all show the fault line in the deference contract beginning to emerge. There are many more examples of this underlying shift.

Focusing though again on the sphere of work, it is important to determine how organisational deference might be diagnosed and tackled; and how deference might be dealt with to help organisations become more agile, quick and inventive.

The SPEED Model

The solution offered in these pages, and explained in depth later, is summed up in a simple acronym: SPEED. By following the strategies belonging to each component of the model (Figure 1.1), organisations can be made stronger, higher performing and more able to adapt to the modern working environment.

Figure 1.1: The SPEED model for diagnosing deference and raising organisational performance.



The diagnostic and improvement process starts with the symbols found in organisations. Symbols tell us a lot about attitudes to deference and they are there in front of us, at work, every day.

Organisations signal their support for deference in different ways, ranging from terms of address to communication rituals to the amount of office space afforded to the deferred to. In some organisations, it may be the express elevator reserved for the senior managers that will provide us with clues as to who are the deferred to. In other settings it will be the extent to which access to individuals is enabled or constrained by physical location or gatekeepers, that is those assistants who seem to never want to allow an appointment with the boss. Signs and symbols are highly observable and are an excellent place to start in the hunt for deference.

But of course, some symbols represent genuine functional needs for different people in the organisation. Having diary secretaries, for example, may be essential for workers who have heavy schedules or are out of the office a great deal. We may not like this, in the sense that some people get diary secretaries and some don’t, but we nevertheless can be persuaded on the basis of genuine need. But where symbols of status and importance are distributed on less functional grounds the wall dividing ‘them’ from ‘us’ starts to be built. Office paraphernalia, as one example, can be rich in symbolic value of this sort. In some organisations the deferred to, for no other reason than who they are, will be given larger, more luxurious office chairs – with softer seats, more expansive armrests, better recline options, you know the sort. In others, items such as executive lamps, silver paperweights, nameplates and business card rolodexes will pop up on the leather-finished desks. The walls of the deferred to might be adorned in original artwork supplied by the company, while the floors might be carpeted to a much higher standard than everywhere else in the building. And if the answer to the question ‘Why?’ is a shrug of the shoulders or a rolling of the eyes from the deferrers, then this may indicate that the organisation is reinforcing, and ultimately will be hampered by, deference.

Here the work begins, if organisations wish to change the deference dynamic. Much in the same way that a marketing team might invest their time and expertise in shaping the company’s external brand, the managers and leaders need to look within, to take ownership of the impact of symbols of deference within the organisation and then move to shape them accordingly.

Psychological Contract

Our next stop is the psychological contract that exists between ‘management’ and ‘workers’. Whereas the symbols of deference are very much in the foreground, the psychological contract sits somewhere in the background – hard to see, but by no means inactive. This contract first emerged as a concept in the early 1960s and was referenced by leaders in the organisation development field, such as Ed Schein and Chris Argyris. It represents the unwritten and implicit mutual rights, obligations and expectations that exist between employers and employees (often understood as ‘management’ and ‘workers’). Some exploration and dialogue with employees is therefore needed to discover the tacit deal between workers and management.

Some of the questions that organisations need to ask of themselves are:

  • What lies in the heads of workers in relation to the psychological contract? For example, the type and level of contribution to change workers should expect to make, the level of challenge that is invited and valued in interactions, the level of authenticity that is sought and the position the organisation really takes on deference.
  • To what extent do the expectations placed on workers (as understood by them) fit with what the organisation genuinely wants from them? For example, some, and possibly too many, organisations enter into what is presented as genuine and open consultation with their workers over large-scale change, only for workers to learn that the most important decisions on change have already been taken. This asymmetry between what is ostensibly asked for and what is genuinely meant speaks volumes about the psychological contract.
  • What would need to happen in order to change the story in people’s heads? For example, might an adjustment to the way change programmes are constructed restore confidence (and reset the psychological contract)? Might a change to the visible behaviours of the leadership help to rewrite the psychological contract? Might explicitly valuing less deferential behaviours serve to shift the implicit deal between workers and management?

The critical messages therefore that management might want to take forward when shaping the psychological contract are these:

  • Understand what you are really asking for (from your employees).
  • Say what you mean, and mean what you say.
  • Show that you value what you are asking for.

Executive Powers

The first ‘e’ of the SPEED model focuses on a simple question that is often harder to answer than to pose: ‘Where should executive powers lie in the organisation?’ By this we mean, at what levels (and in which circumstances) will the authority to make decisions be permitted? To what extent is decision-making power distributed throughout the organisational system, and to what extent must judgements be the preserve of those at the top – the deferred to?

This central question may just be the greatest test of confidence and capability that an organisation will face.