The principle of subsidiarity

Tony Tan, Head of HR for Munich Reinsurance in Greater China, explains why many HR professionals are working against their own interests, and those of society

Each of us has been endowed with unique strengths that, by default, are meant to help us advance humanity, to help ourselves, and to help others.

For instance, if you have a compassionate heart; you just can’t help but be nurturing. If you’re a go-getter, you walk into a situation, see what needs doing, and then get it done. There’s no end to the varied and beautiful strengths with which any one person has been endowed.

Therefore, it is imperative that each person has full access to the support necessary for the development of their full potential for the benefit of society.

This is the principle of subsidiarity. It advocates that those in stronger positions are obligated to aid others who are less able to overcome obstacles to development on their own, such as in the case of someone with an illness, a disability, or personal struggles.

Therefore, those with greater strengths are not divorced from the obligations of social responsibility.

As Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, once said, “When you were made a leader, you weren’t given a crown; you were given the responsibility to bring out the best in others.”

The real thing

In the book In Search of Excellence, authors Tom Peters and Robert Waterman empirically examine the most successful companies and distinguish carefully between strategies of sham respect for the individual (which relies on gimmicks only), and real respect (which implies allowing people to perform as intelligent agents and therefore some form of subsidiarity).

“These companies give ordinary people control over their destinies; they make meaning for people,” they write.

David Packard, co-founder of Hewett Packard, said in 1939 that many people wrongly assumed an organisation exists only to make money.

While Packard believed that was certainly a vital factor, he felt that humans had to probe deeper and source for the real reasons of their being.

“We inevitably come to the conclusion that a group of people exist as an institution so that they are able to accomplish something collectively that they could not achieve separately – that they make a contribution to society,” he said.

In The Practice of Management, Peter Drucker, wrote that “The principle of subsidiarity states that whatever action can be accomplished by individuals or subordinate bodies ought be left to them and not subsumed by higher organisations.”

He said it therefore protects the possibilities of action at all levels of a group.

“It does this not only for the sake of the individual but also for the sake of the vitality of the group. To act in a contrary fashion is to invite stagnation,” he explained.

Yet, according to a recent Willis Towers Watson Global Workforce Study, a third of managers are not coaching employees in their roles, and a quarter are failing to accurately evaluate performance.

Only a third of managers communicate with employees in decisions that affect them.

The report further suggested that employees are sympathetic to the challenges managers face, with 37% acknowledging that their managers don’t have enough time to develop them in their jobs.

Managers know it’s important to delegate, and they know it will save them time and help others develop new skills. So why aren’t they doing it?

The danger of self-enhancement

According to Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Stanford University, some are perfectionists who think it’s easier to do everything themselves or that their work is superior to others.

Pfeffer calls this the “self-enhancement bias.” “Some believe that passing on work will detract from their own importance, while others lack self-confidence and don’t want to be upstaged by their subordinates,” he says. “No matter how self-aware you are, don’t assume that you’re immune to these biases.”

As HR professionals, we need to change our mindset if we are to meet the challenges of the present day to protect our common future.

Under the original social market economy, managers accepted their social responsibility and their duty to the common good.

They realised that they were beholden to a wider array of stakeholders than shareholders alone.

This ethos needs to be restored and reinvigorated so that managers can live up to its “noble vocation” calling again.

To make this vision a reality, we need to apply healthier principles like that of the principle of subsidiarity that is often overlooked in our drive for convenience and personal gain.

We need to question all things that we do and hold fast to what is good. In this way, all the ideas that we implement, and innovations that we introduce come together for the common good of our organisations and society at large - not just for personal benefit or the benefit of the business.

As Robert Kennedy once said, “History will judge you, and as the years pass, you will ultimately judge yourself, in the extent to which you have used your gifts and talents to lighten and enrich the lives of your fellow men.”  

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