I stole an organizational idea from a mentor of mine in college. She was the director of my department when I worked with the university, and had a unique way to approach decision making.

Unfortunately, I didn't understand that approach until much later in my academic career.

When I first started as a Resident Assistant, I was a few levels removed from seeing how policy changes were made and how decisions about the department came about. I wasn't invited to direct meetings, but instead learned of new policies, changes, and major decisions through my supervisors.

More unpopular decisions were always portrayed as "I don't like it either, but the boss says so, and we have to enforce it." As a result, those of us on the lower rungs of leadership harbored a lot of resentment for our boss' boss' boss and the seeming disconnect she had with the way the staff operated.

This resentment led me to refuse to sit on her leadership panel my second year as an RA - a decision that almost destroyed any possibility of advancement I had.

Thankfully, I survived that minor mishap and still earned the new (higher) position I'd applied for. The new job meant more privileges, but also more responsibility. One of those responsibilities was membership on the more senior staff in the department.

Closed Meetings

One of the first things I learned was the lower-level staffers' resentment was entirely misplaced. As it turned out, many of the most unpopular decisions passed down through the department were not unanimous. As a matter of fact, the same woman we blamed for being behind these changes and policies had actually been their most fervent opponent.

Our weekly staff meetings consisted of Complex Directors (paid professionals), Assistant Complex Directors (student roles), and the various Directors of Residence Life and Housing. There was a complex hierarchy to all of our titles, which helped determine the direction in which complaints and discipline flowed when necessary.

But during our closed-door staff meetings, we were all equal. Titles didn't matter, and my voice as a student employee carried just as much weight as that of the director of the department. It was not what I was expecting when I came to the first meeting.

All decisions were reached by consensus. If someone disagreed strongly, that disagreement would essentially stall any decision-making. Instead, if anyone had reservations about a new policy, a change in procedure, or even a disciplinary proceeding, we were encouraged to voice it but still step back to see how things played out.

"I don't agree entirely that this is the right plan of action. At the same time, I don't think we should hold back, either, so I'll reserve judgement until we see what happens next."

Inside the meeting, we could be the most argumentative and verbally divided group you've ever seen. Once we reached a decision (or agreed to a compromise) we'd leave the room and present a totally united front to our staff. Even if I disagreed with a particular decision, I had to own it when I left the room in case my staff challenged it.

Multiple Levels

The senior staff wasn't the only level this behavior happened on, though. When I met with my own staff, we had an almost identical policy.

Behind closed doors, anyone could disagree with anything and be completely open about their opinions. Once we left the room, though, the entire staff was expected to present a united front to our residents, whether we agreed with the group's final decision or not.

I also know that the higher-level staff (i.e. the university administrative team) organized themselves the same way - closed-door discussions giving way to apparently unanimous decision-making.

It was an interesting way for discussions to flow, and considering each level of the hierarchy was independent, created several other unique features.

Just as a decision coming down from a higher level was unanimous, any complaints or feedback moving up the chain was completely anonymous. My staff had to trust me to bring me sensitive concerns just as much as the other members of the leadership team had to trust me to present a united stance on the decisions we made.

It's not the kind of organizational structure you usually see in a company or group, but it's one I actively seek out and work to instill in others. It breeds a culture of trust and mutual responsibility - two features vital to the success of any enterprise.

It also means my particular approach to team meetings, discussions, and feedback needs a bit of explaining when someone new joins the team.