Her book urges consensual decision-making


SILVER RUN -- Demand for Kathleen P. Iannello's first book probably won't outstrip the supply in area bookstores. "Decisions Without Hierarchy" is hardly recreational reading.

"It's an academic book," she said. "It's not going to hit the New York Times' best-seller list."

Ms. Iannello, 37, an assistant professor of political science at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, hopes the book provokes thought and gets readers thinking in different directions.

"If we can change the way we make decisions, we can change the way men and women deal with each other in everyday organizations," she said.

Reviewers describe "Decisions Without Hierarchy" as feminist intervention literature. It details Ms. Iannello's research into the traditional decision-making process, and workable alternatives to that process, which governs most American institutions.

"Americans are accustomed to having bosses, and most organizations in our culture operate in a top-down fashion," she said. "From the time we are little we ask, 'Who's the boss?' "

Traditional organizations function in a triangular fashion. A few people at the top dominate, control the money and make all decisions.

"A strict hierarchy with a chairman and board of directors allows little input from workers" she said.

These organizations are not nearly as efficient as they appear, she said.

"When only a few vote on issues, the non-winners go away disgruntled, and find ways to bring their issues back again and again," she said. "When everyone participates, no one goes away angry."

While growing up on a dairy farm in upstate New York, she learned many things, like weather, are out of our direct control.

"Instead of going for control and domination, you learn to adapt and work with," she said. "Society can't move forward as long as one group dominates another."

Her research shows consensual decision-making, represented by a circle instead of triangle, eliminates "the layers of authority" and is more effective.

"Allowing everyone to take a greater part in what is going on makes them feel more productive and more a part of the organization," she said.

The Israeli kibbutz is one example of how this process works, she said. Another would be Japanese companies, particularly Toyota and Honda, which have been operating "consensually" for years.

In this country, she said, many businesses have made their organizations "flatter," allowing management and lower levels to become closer.

"It doesn't remove the basic motive for doing business," she said. "Management is just finding consensual operations are more profitable."

She said she sees a "bright future" for consensual decision-making, predicting that within 10 years most organizations will operate "in a circle."

"The consensual method might take more time initially," she said. "When it's a real group process, the decision often comes out better than anyone thought."

Her dissertation, which evolved into the book, represents four years of research into her theory.

Always interested in feminist literature, she began looking for a research project while working on her doctorate at Penn State University. When she and her husband, Terry Dalton, moved to New England, she began teaching at the University of Vermont.

She located three long-established feminist organizations: a women's health collective, a peace group and a business women's group. These organizations became the basis for the project.

As a participant and an observer for two years, she determined how each "got business done."

"Women are better equipped generally than men to make decisions consensually," she said. "They see the whole picture, are better listeners and are better at the ethic of care."

Two of the organizations in the study allowed every member to participate in the decision-making process. The third, which operated under traditional methods, became a comparison and control.

"Observing the groups while teaching full time at the University of Vermont was a big time commitment," she said. "I taught days and spent evenings attending their meetings. It was the only way to see how they conducted business."

The first women's health group in the country has been in existence for 20 years. Members worked through many difficult decisions consensually including whether to perform abortions or to treat men in the practice.

The business group, the first in the country to propose an equal rights amendment in the 1920s, has internal differences about its future direction. Some members want to adhere to a model reflected in the business world and help women climb the corporate ladder. Others want to provide child-care and opportunities for women re-entering the job market.

"I am still watching to see if the divergent lines affect that group's future structure," she said.

Ms. Iannello said she hopes to continue her research, possibly focusing on several organizations in Baltimore.

"I hope there are more books in my future," she said. "We are all students and should continue to study."

She said she wants to effect change for women through grass-roots efforts.

"In the grass roots, everyone can work immediately to have an impact on the family, the work place and make changes from the top on down," she said.

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