Did you realise that every second of every day, your body’s immune system is fighting off a multitude of infections? To function properly, your immune system must detect a wide variety of agents, known as pathogens, from viruses to parasitic worms, and distinguish them from the body’s own healthy tissue. Having done so, it can fight them off and prevent the body from being overcome by disease.
Most of the time, you are completely unaware of this process taking place. Your immune system deals with the incoming assault and you are able to function normally. But every so often, you will succumb to some malady or another. This will go on for a short period of time, during which you will be aware that you are unwell, until your immune system gets on top of the problem and fights it off.
What’s interesting is that even during these periods of ill health, you are able to continue to function relatively normally, even though you have disruptive symptoms that impair your functioning to varying degrees. But when the immune system breaks down or is unable to handle a particular disease, the body begins to malfunction and ultimately, without treatment, shuts down completely.
It’s exactly the same in organisations. Every organisation is diseased to one degree or another, with an internal immune system fighting off the disease to a sufficient extent that the organisation continues to function, despite being sick. This is why you can experience life in an organisation as being dysfunctional and unpleasant for years and years, yet the organisation continues to operate, albeit poorly. The diseases in question arise in the form of behaviours – the little things people do every day that all add up. It turns out that there are a number of particularly persistent and destructive behaviours that afflict most organisations, impairing their functioning and hindering their ability to make progress.
What I want to show you is the four main diseases that affect organisations – the four main behaviours that rot its culture from the inside out, so you can identify their symptoms and take action to drive them out of your organisation.
Blaming and Persecution
A person makes a mistake at work and feels emotions of guilt, fear, anxiety and self-loathing. Their self-esteem drops as they wake up to the fact that they are responsible for this almighty cock-up. They become nervous as they wait to be found out and publicly humiliated by their colleagues and managers as a result of their mistake.
In most organisations, when a mistake is perceived to have been made, the default behaviour is not to identify the cause of the mistake in order to prevent repetition, but to find and humiliate the person responsible.
Blame is the aim and persecution is the tool used to deliver the message.
This rather dramatic ritual of hunting down and publicly vilifying the appropriate individual is incredibly common. The level of drama associated with it varies according the the culture of the organisation involved and the personal style of the person delivering the persecution. But the mindset behind the behaviour is the same – mistakes are the result of people, therefore blaming and persecuting the perpetrator is the best way to deal with them.
It also works in reverse. Individuals will often use blame and persecution to deflect attention away from themselves – covering up their own mistakes by attributing blame to someone else.
This continuous cycle of blaming other individuals and then persecuting them for their perceived faults creates a culture of fear, reducing every business situation to a personal mini-drama where preservation of self-esteem is the order of the day. Hardly a recipe for making progress in the development of a business or organisation, surely?
The antidote to this particular disease is to normalise mistakes. Accepting that mistakes are inevitable and understanding their usefulness in gaining knowledge for the future renders it OK for people to make them. We all make mistakes, we know this to be one of the qualities of being human, so why not treat them as normal?
Focus not on the person who made the mistake, but on the circumstances that led to the mistake in the first place. What can be learned from what happened? What suggestions does the person involved have about what might work better next time? How can we move forward?
The key is not to beat up the person responsible, but to understand the facts of the situation and learn. This removes the personal element from the situation and allows an objective view of the facts to be achieved, making it easier for the organisation to move forward in a better position. Mistakes can be positive – allow people to make mistakes and you get innovation. Blame and persecute people for their mistakes and you get stagnation.
Members of the team justify their performance at work by identifying all the external factors that they believe to be outside their control and demonstrating how they have prevented them from making progress. Phrases such as “it’s not my fault”, “I would have done it but x happened”, “this decision is so unfair!” and “why is it always people at our level that get treated badly?” are heard on a regular basis.
Welcome to the world of Victim Identity. When you’re in this world, you believe that everything in your work life is controlled by others. – you are not responsible for your own circumstances. Victim Identity is an extremely common and pervasive mindset and it infests most organisations to one degree or another. It can be seen across all areas of an internal hierarchy, from the contact centre agent through to the senior director, and it rears its ugly head continuously, infecting conversations, decisions and behaviours.
Organisations are riddled with victims. The problem is, victims don’t believe they are responsible for taking action or making a change. They constantly complain about their job, but perversely won’t look for a new one. They think their boss is a cretin, but won’t have the relevant conversations to improve the relationship. They lament the external factors that prevent them from achieving their tasks, but do nothing to address them.
It’s important to understand that one of the reasons people adopt a Victim Identity is to protect their ego. By absolving themselves of all responsibility for their actions, they are able to direct blame for their circumstances on others. For this reason, frequently, victims will turn into persecutors.
I need to make an important distinction. Many of us experience victimisation at some point in our life but what is at issue here is the playing out of the victim role. Everybody experiences challenges and barriers on a regular basis but it is how we choose to address those circumstances that determines what role we will play. People choose to be a victim – and an organisation full of voluntary victims is not a productive one.
Since a Victim Identity is primarily a learned behaviour and not inborn, it is possible to change it. The key is to manage your response to the victim behaviour you are being presented with. These steps usually help in guiding a conversation with a person who has a Victim Identity:
- Establish clarity about the situation and show empathy for the person’s feelings. Phrases such as “I can see how you might feel that this project’s objectives make unfair demands on you, and at the same time it’s true to say that this is unlikely to change” can help to build rapport with the person while establishing that their responsibilities are their own. While you should empathise and validate their view remember not to sympathise – this just reaffirms the person’s view that they are a victim.
- Engage the person’s thoughts in solving the problem. Phrases such as “I’m just wondering what your thoughts are on how these objectives can be achieved in the time you have available” help to move the person towards considering their situation in a logical and rational manner, diffusing their emotional state. It’s important to be consistent in the message that the situation is not going to change – the person needs to use their mind to sort it out.
- Reinforce the person’s positive qualities. Reward their initiative and validate their positive behaviour.
People make continuous references to events that occurred in the past or dispatch long tirades about the circumstances that led to the current situation. Phrases such as “Well what you have to remember is this situation came about because of x” and “We tried this 10 years ago and it didn’t work then” continually appear in meetings and conversations.
Oh, we love to bring up the past in our organisations, don’t we? Sit in any meeting in any organisation and you are sure to hear sentences similar to these pouring out like a leak from a sewage pipe. They direct thought towards what happened in the past, usually in a negative context and prevent intelligent discussion of what needs to happen for the organisation to move forward.
The reason behind this is the common mindset of Past Focus. The past focussed person brings up old issues from the past during a meeting or conversation, which diverts the discussion into old unresolved hurts and pain while avoiding the current issue. Doing this spreads the argument so thin with so many accusations and wastes so much time that the main problem does not get resolved.
Organisations have to move forward in order to survive in a changing world but Past Focus roots them to old situations that may not ever be repeated, helping to ensure that they are unable to deal with whatever the future might present.
The obvious solution to this problem is to steer conversations to focus on the future. Usually, it’s helpful to ask the past-focussed person some intelligent questions designed to move their thinking to a future-based approach.
Questions such as “How is this relevant to the situation we’re in today?”, “What can we learn from the situation you’ve just described?”, “What do you think we should do now?”, “How will we manage this going forward?” will divert attention away from lamenting the past and towards understanding the future, while allowing room for lessons to be learned from previous experiences.
Every decision involves continuous checking up and down the internal hierarchy. The main area of concern is ensuring that everyone is “happy” or “OK” with the decision or plan. Progress is slowed down further if any of the individuals involved express concern or dissatisfaction about the decision. The “what” of decision making is given more consideration and rated as more important than the “how”.
Organisations are obsessed with achieving consensus. Whether it’s through a fear of hurting people’s feelings, or a need to demonstrate “buy-in” to decisions, many organisations are now driven by a consensus culture. No decision can be made unless everyone agrees or has at least voiced their opinion. This leads to the insidious disease of Consensus Paralysis.
The result of this continuous checking for consensus up and down the hierarchy is a decision making process so slow that nothing really ever gets done. The obvious impact is that change and innovation within the organisation is stifled.
What’s more, Consensus Paralysis leads to apathy, cynicism and detachment within an organisation as people begin to realise that nothing ever changes.
But at least everyone is happy, right?
Consensus Paralysis can be unlocked by realigning the focus of decision-making. The key is to move conversation away from the personal subjective into the rational objective. Often, when the facts of a situation are made clear, the logical solution is revealed. In many cases, personal preferences and emotional standpoints dissolve in the light of factual data.
This can be achieved by using a simple set of questions that focus people’s minds on the problem to be solved, as opposed to their personal position. These questions include:
- What are the facts of the situation?
- What options are open to us?
- What are the outcomes of these options?
- How will we manage the implications?
- What is the best option based on our understanding of the facts of the situation we face?
By focussing on what the best option is from a business perspective, based on objective facts, we can eliminate the need to achieve consensus from the individuals involved in the decision-making process. A clear business decision will automatically engender consensus.
At Franklin-Hackett Ltd. we have seen first-hand the destructive effect these common behaviours have on organisations. But we have also seen the incredible improvements in efficiency, productivity and employee engagement that result from treating their root causes.
So I will leave you with this final thought – your organisation is diseased. It’s life may even be in danger. If this was a close friend or family member, would you stand back idly and watch them succumb to a treatable disease?
What are you going to do to help your organisation on the road to recovery?
It starts with you.
John Hackett is an Organisational Change Alchemist and Managing Director of Franklin-Hackett Ltd