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  • Writer's pictureBrian Gómez

Social Architecture: How to build organizations by building people



Recently I had a meeting where I was told to focus on my “sphere of control.” That is to focus on what is in my purview under current governance structures. While I had overshot my role on the team, I reflected back on the nature of the feedback.  Spheres of control are problematic in a multitude of ways, but specifically I was concerned with the premise of the static nature of the governance structure I was working within.


Spheres of controls largely are in misalignment with theories on informal power in the workplace such as the inherent belief that the organizational chart defines who has influence in the organization and who doesn’t. Many new senior leaders might find themselves resonating with this. I remember being promoted a few years ago and realizing just this. Although my formal power in the organization had grown, informal networks hadn’t changed. People from odd corners of the organization held large amounts of power due to their tenure, their relationships with management, and the amount of social clout they carried in the organization that reflected leadership’s beliefs, identities, worldviews, and backgrounds. While we might seek to try to control the ways that humans perceive each other, the biggest lesson from the sphere of control we have to learn is that we can’t control the ways humans subconsciously assign power and respect to one another.


I might really trust my coworker because I see myself in her, or not listen to someone I don’t believe is old enough to know better. But of course these schematics that construct our worldview are flawed. To get past them, we have to continually reflect on the ways our personal and professional networks of influence are clouded by our experience, identities, and beliefs about the world. We also must be willing to listen to information we disagree with, learn from unlikely sources, and let go of the belief of  immutability in structures, lest they show us their instability in time.


 I wrote a bit about this last year, about the ways that rigid organizational structures like buildings create fractures and stress points unevenly, that then end up having the power to topple the building. Sure enough, in the months that followed, I saw the ways certain bottlenecks caused individuals to fizzle and burn out in an organization. If people in the same position in an organization are continuously burning out, it might be that that part of the structure itself is the issue. The ability to balance load, and share stress among a wider area all influence the likelihood certain points in a social architecture will shutter.


Something I find interesting is that in places like skyscrapers, the top parts of the buildings can be the most prone to stress. When we think about organizational structures, I’ve also seen top leaders be the most rigid in their belief in the social architecture of the organization. When we gain formal power, the biggest blindside that we gain is an unwavering commitment to the current power structure, regardless of the benefit to the team. We’ve all seen founders who grow past their own abilities, likely because they had the time to create an organization to the current point, that then are unwilling to step down and must be ousted by a board. 


Being in power feels good, even when we aren’t the right person for the job. This brings another example to mind. When I was part of a Board of Directors, there was one person who exhibited this. He had been in leadership for decades, and the organization was moving forward. Once a respected leader, his grandstanding and erratic outbursts were causing increased tension in the organization. This had correctly caused those on the outside to doubt the organization’s stability and their support for it. They were watching a skyscraper sway back and forth, wind shears hitting its top floors. However, his commitment to himself made him more suspicious of others, as he isolated himself into a smaller and smaller group of trusted confidants. With large amounts of both formal and informal power, he was able to cause quite a deal of chaos and ended up shaking the entire building. 


This is another part of the challenge of static organizational structures: they reinforce ideas of hierarchy in groups, self-importance, and work to  strengthen the ego for those at the top. The more people stay in power the more they begin to see themselves not as temporary stand-ins as the antenna of the Sears Tower, but as people who are in fact above others, regardless of their behavior. This leads to increased biases, errors, and challenges for the organization. So what can we do to combat this?


Beyond not enforcing this through things like sphere of controls, which are often used to placate junior employees, which at times are issues that could be solved by unionization, we must also switch places. Just like buildings, the ability to balance stress, influence, and leadership across a wide area creates a more resilient and powerful organization. It can also lead to innovation, growth, and dynamism in an organization, which is especially needed for the world we live in today.  It also helps employees grow, not just up, but in, out, and all around. 


Recently I got a haircut and the barber made a great point. He was reflecting on his time in corporate, and the ways in which as a younger person, his ego ruled his work. He avoided accountability, deflected blame, and was easily triggered. In his older age he realized the personal growth he had done since then, and that his time might look different if he ever returned. While we are always growing as people, I think work can serve as  a source for which we don’t use formal power structures to avoid growth but rather are able to use it as a source of gaining self awareness, reflection, empathy, humility, and an understanding of the interconnectedness we have to each other, especially in a closed system.


Not one person has less control than another, and the more we work to build resilient structures, the more we can share power, stress, and work to end the belief in the separation of the self and the other, leading us to a more unified organization and society.

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