Saturday, 14 August 2010

Why good people behave badly in organisations

We behave badly because we’ve been trained to behave badly from about age 11 in industrial education processes for industrial work. We’re imprinted with that classroom model of authority, hierarchy, knowledge, expertise, compliance, manipulation, control and work, right from when we leave the nursery school for the conventional school classroom.

That imprint is then reinforced at every level of education and on into employment. No wonder we find it difficult to conceptualise, let alone be anything else. We perpetuate the model unthinkingly. There is a saying that education is what’s left after you forget all that you (explicitly) learned. Entrepreneurs typically leave formal education early.

That industrial concept of organisation is very sticky and there’s little reason to challenge or change it unless the world changes and innovation becomes the key to survival. Then it becomes imperative to access and maximise individual and collaborative potential that is unwittingly squandered, eroded and destroyed by industrial organisation and management.

To survive we need to dispel the climates of fear, cynicism and disengagement that so often prevail; break the cycle of bad behaviour that is so toxic for emotional and mental health and sabotages engagement and productivity.

We need to resolve our double lives: break the spell of industrial age thinking and open our work and institutional life to what we know from that life beyond work.

Since the industrial revolution, when work arguably became seriously separated from the rest of life, most working adults live second lives at church, school, or home.

The question isn’t so much whether we lead double lives but how can we translate our knowledge of that ‘other life’ into our work and institutional behaviour? That’s difficult because much of our organisational behaviour is driven by unconscious assumptions and reflex behaviours tacitly learned during ‘industrial’ schooling and tacitly confirmed by our experience since.

The roots of industrial age production and education are in the thinking and practices that became prominent in the 1940s through 60s and still dominate many business improvement books. Industrial organisations had many characteristics of machines. They were formed around machines. Machines have since replaced many of the jobs in those organisations.

The machine model of organisation, still appropriate in some contexts, is characterised by structures; job breakdowns; lines of communication, job delineation; objectification; linear causal thinking. There is a sense of un-emotional rigidity and inexorability about it. Performance failures are fixed by replacing parts (people) or in extreme, restructuring. The ‘system’ reigns supreme.

In the 70s a new image of organisation emerged: organisations as intelligent organisms with interdependent functions and organs, striving to survive, responding to stimuli, adapting to changing environment, evolving to fit niche environments, the fittest surviving.

In the 80s people became the focus in the notion of organisation as culture comprised of cultures. Values, attitudes, beliefs, rituals, artefacts, normalised and normative behaviours became the centre of attention.

The 90s saw a return to the machine metaphor but this time the machine is a computer and computer networks: a hi-tech version of the earlier industrial machine. “Process re-engineering” was all the rage. People were mysterious, unreliable repositories of knowledge which is best extracted, digitised, then stored and managed in computerised files and networked information systems. Restructuring resurges, sometime dressed as process re-engineering. People are nodes in networks.

In the new millennium the World Wide Web enabled an explosion in relationships, shaking knowledge structures. The notion of knowledge and organisations as webs of relationships takes form. Hierarchy dissolves in the web and industrial style surveillance and control is impossible (Contractor, 2002).

The image of organisation as a web of relationships begins to make sense. But still the sticky industrial structures and controlling behaviours persist. People see the seeming ambiguity, openness, absence of command structures, and reliance on relationships as risky.

Leaders must risk openness, admit not knowing, focus on the detail of interpersonal relationships, build trust in long term relationships for mutual learning and growth.

Most bosses would claim that they do this already. Ask their reports. Most reports would claim that they can be trusted with responsibility. Ask their managers. It’s time we all stopped blaming, shaming and justifying and collaborated to change -bosses first.

Start by seeking honest, open feedback about your own behaviour. Talk to people other than your direct reports. Then deliberately and openly attempt to change your behaviour. Invite observations of your progress. Then expect your reports to do the same. Help and encourage them. They will be sure that this is managerial suicide.

For more in this radical vein go to Steve Denning: Does asking smart questions make you a radical manager?

Contractor, N. S. 2002. New media and organising. In L. Lievrow & S. Livingstone (Eds.). The Handbook of New Media (pp. 203-205). London: Sage.

Tse, S. & Barnett, S. 2009. Recovery Oriented Services. In Chris Lloyd, Robert King, Frank Deane, and Kevin Gournay (Eds.). Clinical Management in Mental Health Services. Chapter 7, (pp. 94 -114). Blackwell: London.


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