Mandatory Autonomy

Today the Supreme Court heard testimony in Duke v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., a sexual discrimination lawsuit started in 2000.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy appeared not to buy the argument put forward by Joseph Sellers, attorney for the plaintiffs seeking class action status.

“Our theory is that Wal-­Mart provided to its managers unchecked discretion…that was used to pay women less than men who were doing the same work in the same facilities at the same time, even though those women had more seniority and higher performance.”

— Joseph Sellers, plaintiffs’ lawyer

“I’m getting whipsawed here. On the one hand, you say the problem is that they were utterly subjective, and on the other hand you say there is a strong corporate culture that guides all of this. Well, which is it?”

— Justice Antonin Scalia

Justice Kennedy apparently echoed Justice Scalia’s sentiments: “On the one hand, the plaintiffs allege that ‘Arkansas knows everything,’ Kennedy said, referring to Wal-Mart’s home state. But on the other, individual managers have too much autonomy.”

Again, “Mr. Sellers argued the two pieces fit together. He said corporate policy gave local managers unfettered discretion to underpay women. And prejudice against women, was part of what he contended was a centralized corporate culture the company calls ‘the Wal-Mart Way.'”

The Justices’ confusion notwithstanding, there is no contradiction or paradox in Mr. Sellers’ argument. One popular expression of this pervasive corporate phenomenon is found in Peters and Waterman’s best selling book In Search of Excellence.  In it, they dedicate an entire chapter to “Simultaneous Loose-Tight Properties.”

“Organizations that live by the loose-tight principle are on the one hand rigidly controlled, yet at the same time allow (indeed, insist on) autonomy…”

— Peters & Waterman, In Search of Excellence

Within the field of management and organization the idea of loose coupling is notably associated with Karl Weick, among others. A riveting example of just how tight loose can be is James Barker’s study: “Tightening the Iron Cage: Concertive Control in Self-Managing Teams.”