Ancient Athens provides a model for the contemporary workplace
By Cynthia Yoder
Princeton NJ -- Classical history scholars may not seem the most likely candidates to write a book on the modern workplace. But Princeton professor Josiah Ober and co-author Brook Manville have done just that, demonstrating that ancient Athens can serve as a model for potentially powerful organizational practices.
Ober is the David Magie '97 Class of 1897 Professor of Classics at Princeton, and Manville is a chief learning officer at Saba Software and a former classics professor. Published by Harvard Business School Press, "A Company of Citizens" addresses businesses in democratic societies and suggests that business leaders approach their employees as "citizens." The authors maintain that employees should be treated as free and equal members of the organization, echoing their experience in the larger culture. Consequently, employees would be invested in the company on personal and economic levels currently not experienced in most modern firms.
"Most organizations that exist tend to work against the assumptions of democracy," said Ober, who has written several books on classical history and political theory. Current practice in the workplace assumes that whatever freedoms of self-governance employees enjoy in the larger society, they are expected to leave them in the umbrella bucket when they walk through the company door.
Even though some employees may be stockholders in their company, they may not be invested politically in the company's outcomes. When employees go to work, there often is the assumption that "now you are neither free nor equal; now you will take orders," Ober observed.
Ober said another advantage to the model is that citizen-employees may sacrifice personal gains for the good of the company. For example, citizen-employees who feel appreciated and satisfied may be willing to defer some material rewards in the form of higher pay and benefits if their company faces hard times. Employees may consider their pay package just one part of a bigger rewards package that includes the satisfaction of being part of an organization that allows them to be self-actualized rather than simply "cogs in a wheel."
Citizens as decision-makers
"Athens' citizens held the right to decision-making and the responsibility for carrying out decisions," Ober noted by way of comparison. "They enjoyed not just immunities and rights, but duties, and they were enjoyable duties."
These duties included voting in legislative assemblies, serving as members of huge juries and being elected to a citizens' council. Of course, Athens' rules for citizenship itself were flawed by modern standards -- non-natives, slaves and women were denied citizenship. The authors acknowledge this fact as a possible Achilles' heel for Athens, as citizenship of all people could have strengthened the city against its eventual overthrow.
Despite its flaws, the self-governance of Athens may sound like a Utopian ideal for businesses bent on profits. Yet it's an ideal that worked to a high degree of success in Athens. Ober noted that the Athenian model doesn't require human beings to be super-altruistic or so community oriented as to be uninterested in their own personal projects. It simply requires leaders to act less like autocrats and more like democrats.
Athenian ideals at Princeton
Furthermore, the ideal doesn't exist only in the past. Although Ober said he doesn't know of any companies that function on the level suggested by the Athenian model, he points toward Princeton University's Faculty Advisory Committee on Appointments and Advancements as an example of the kind of self-governing function that individuals can have in an organization.
The "Committee of Three" oversees all faculty appointments and promotions and is elected by the faculty body. Despite its name, it has six voting and five non-voting members. And, as was true for ancient Athens, the Committee of Three runs on the interrelationship of three essential democratic values: individuality, community and accountability.
"As a member of this committee, you learn to trust the faculty," commented Ober, who has served on the committee. "If the other faculty members don't do their job, the committee doesn't work."
An essential component of the model of self-governance is trust, a behavior trait that may not emerge instantly within organizations. However, when it does develop over time, Ober said, "meetings won't be about coffee and cookies, but about working together as a team for a common goal."
Business leaders who pick up "A Company of Citizens" will find themselves at first steeped in ancient history, rather than immersed in a list of quick fixes. The authors describe the book as a "think piece" -- not surprising, coming from two classical history scholars. Yet, the authors said they attempted to present the history as a clear, accessible lesson, offering thought-provoking questions to help leaders apply the model of citizenship to their own companies.
"Mr. Businessman or Ms. Businesswoman isn't going to just drop this model into their business and say, 'Fine, now it's solved,'" Ober said. "Rather, it's a way for business leaders to think about where they want their organizations to go and what kind of ideals they have for the people who work there."