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Bringing purpose to life

Freedom with responsibility (subsidiarity)

The word subsidiarity comes from the Latin subsidium, meaning help. It is taken from one of the wisdom traditions behind Blueprint, CST, and its most famous use is in EU treaties, regarding where, or at what level, decisions are made.

Whereas solidarity is about how the decision is made, subsidiarity is about where decisions are made and includes:

  • People at each level of the hierarchy being given the widest decision-space possible – in line with their responsibility and access to information at that level, and be supported (i.e. helped) in doing that by higher levels in the business hierarchy.
  • Providing appropriate support – people need the resources, encouragement and psychological safety to ask for help. It requires that the allocation of decisions among people be intelligently made, helping people to grow, not putting them in stressful situations where they can’t make proper decisions because they don’t have access to the information needed, or by adopting a kind of laissez-faire approach.
  • Creating the conditions for human development – since we develop competencies and skills (that is, we develop ourselves) through our purposeful actions, if we are only carrying out actions defined for us by others we have far less chance to grow and, indeed, we may even experience a loss of our capacity to do and to think.
  • Participation, voice and agency – an active sharing in achieving business objectives through one’s work. Where people have a voice, they are encouraged to think things through, not just execute, which also allows the possibility for them to connect their understanding of their work activities more clearly to the overall purpose of the business. Agency emphasises the sense of having some sphere of control and the chance to make a meaningful difference.

So subsidiarity is driven first of all by promoting human dignity and human development. But it isn’t only about being good to people – it is about personal development, efficiency and a way of ensuring a pipeline of potential leaders for higher levels in the organisation, and for society as a whole.

An important implication of the principle of subsidiarity in business is the limitation of “command and control” approaches, which very often fail to respect the due freedom of people, limit development and demotivate. One of the striking developments in many businesses during the Covid pandemic has been the necessity to increase delegation and encourage agile responses to rapid changes in market conditions. But even before the pandemic there has been a growing body of work on how delegating more responsibility for decision making increases productivity, morale and commitment in business. See for instance: Deborah Grayson Riegel, 8 Ways Leaders Delegate Successfully, HBR

Questions to consider:

The following questions are a way of considering the evolution of habitual practice which this section seeks to describe, from a starting point of self-interest alone to an aspiration:

  • Am I prioritizing timely decision-making over the growth of others?
  • Am I enabling others to make decisions, but resuming control when I deem it necessary?
  • Am I trusting and enabling others in decision making to help them thrive and grow?