Aug 14 2006

Book Short: Choose Voice!

Book Short:  Choose Voice!

I took a couple days off last week and decided to re-read two old favorites.  One –Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead — my fourth reading — will take me a little longer to process and figure out if there’s a good intersection with the blog.  One would think so with entrepreneurship as the topic, but my head still hurts from all the objectivism.  The second — Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, by Albert O. Hirschman — is today’s topic.

I can’t remember when I first read Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.  It was either in senior year of high school Economics or Government; or in freshman year of college Political Philosophy.  Either way, it was a long time ago, and for some reason, some of the core messages of this quirkly little 125 page political/economic philosophy book have stayed with me over the years.  I remembered the book incorrectly as a book about political systems, and I think it was born consciously in the wake of Eugene McCarthy’s somewhat revolutionary challenge to a sitting President Johnson for the Democratic Party nomination in 1968.  But the book is actually about business; it’s just about businesses and their customers, not corporations as social structures (the latter being more of an interest to me).  Written by an academic economist (I think), the book has its share of gratuitous demonstrative graphs, 2×2 matrices, and SAT words.  But its central premise is a gem for anyone who runs an organization of any size.

The central premise is that there are really two paths by which one can express dissatisfaction with a temporary, curable lapse in an organization:  exit (bailing), or voice (trying to fix what’s wrong from within).  The third key element, Loyalty, is less a path in and of itself but more an agent that “holds exit at bay and activates voice.”

You need to read the book and apply it to your own circumstances to really get into it, but for me, it’s all about breeding loyalty as a means of making voice the path of least resistance, even when exit is a freely available option (few of us run totalitarian states or monopolies, after all).  That to me is the definition of a successful enterprise, both internally and externally.

With your customers:  make your product so irresistible, and make your customer service so deep, that your customers feel an obligation to help you fix what they perceive to be wrong with your product first, rather than simply complain about price or flee to a competitor.

With your employees:  make your company the best possible place you can think of to work so that even in as ridiculously fluid a job market as we live in, your employees will come to their manager, their department head, the head of HR, or you as leader to tell you when they’re unhappy instead of just leaving, or worse, sulking.

With your company (you as employee):  make yourself indispensible to the organization and do such a great job that if things go wrong with your performance or with your role, your manager’s loyalty to you leads him or her to give you open feedback and coach you to success rather than unceremoniously show you the door.

Ok, this wasn’t such a short book short — probably the longest I’ve ever written in this blog, and certainly the highest ratio of short:actual book.  But if you’re up for a serious academic framework (quasi-business but not exclusively) to apply to your management techniques, this short 1970 book is as valid today as when it was written.  Thanks to David Ramert (I am pretty sure I read it in high school) for introducing it to me way back when!