Wednesday, April 26, 2020

The Self-Defeating Business

Two of the most widely-used individual therapies in the world, Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, share the view that self-defeating, irrational responses to circumstance are the most typical cause of personal problems. Life produces abundant challenges, but the cause of unhappiness and anxiety is the response you make to the challenge, not the challenge itself. Events in themselves don't make you stressed or miserable. You do that to yourself by the way you choose to deal with them. This same process seem to me to operate at an organizational scale.

We'll start by illustrating the way this works in individuals. Albert Ellis and Robert Harper's book A Guide to Rational Living explains this by using the first three letters of the alphabet. Adversities occur (A) and people respond to them by drawing on their beliefs (B) about what to do. Some of these beliefs are rational, other irrational. The consequences (C) of applying the beliefs to the adversities produce feelings according to which beliefs have been used. Changing the outcome, the feelings (C), is a matter of changing the belief.

Suppose Jane has been told she's going to lose her job. That's an adversity (A). A rational belief (B) might be that this will cause her some discomfort financially and she needs to get started right away to find other employment. The consequential feelings (C) to this belief might include sadness, some irritation—and perhaps some excitement as well at the prospect of maybe getting a better job. Her behavior, based on this rational chain of beliefs and feelings, is likely to be helpful and positive.

John gets the same news. His beliefs about it are irrational. He thinks someone must have a "down" on him. He doesn't deserve a setback like this. Companies always get rid of the losers during downsizing, so he must be seen as a loser. Maybe he is a loser. These thoughts and beliefs lead to anger, frustration and depression. He doesn't get on with finding a new job. Instead, he tears into the boss's office and bawls him out. When he goes for interviews for new jobs, he can't stop himself rehearsing his sense of grievance over again. As a result, few people are keen to employ him and his depression worsens.

At the organizational scale, things work in much the same way. Because of irrational beliefs, many organizations substitute requirements for frantic busyness for rational choices about activities and priorities. The irrational belief behind this? That the business will deserve success because people have put in so many working hours to gain it; and, by extension, it will deserve failure unless they do. By this line of thinking, long hours, stress and overwork become quasi-magical talismans of success.

Another very frequent type of irrational belief is the one that says because something could happen, it definitely will. This leads people to imagine a slew of fearful consequences and work themselves into a state of near-hysterical panic as a result. In their haste to ward off mostly imaginary disasters, they make decisions based on the corporate version of clinical depression: the market is dreadful, it's bound to get worse, competition is entirely unfair, taxation is crippling and the financial outlook is bleaker than it's ever been. Once again, it isn't the business climate that's causing the stress, it's the way businesses—and the managers within them—are choosing to respond that produces the pressure.

I say "choosing" because it is a choice. No one has to cling to irrational beliefs or act on them. If it doesn't feel like a choice, that's because it's become habitual. As with individuals, the key to unravelling the negative process of irrational organizational beliefs and dysfunctional consequences is looking hard at the beliefs themselves. Many organizations have created cultures built almost entirely on irrational beliefs: that the past is the best guide to the future; that there are simple answers to every problem, however complex; that driving people harder and harder is the only way to achieve success; that time is money and speed therefore guarantees cost savings or profitability.

Organizational beliefs and behaviors are frequently self-defeating. Haste and a refusal to stop and think make it worse. When you're running as fast as you can, it's hard to realize the belief you're acting on is totally irrational. That niggling doubt creeps in that if you don't push as hard as everyone else seems to be doing, you'll deserve to suffer. The obsessive work ethic that defaces our society ensures you'll feel constant guilt unless you fill every moment with activity.

Slowing down is the best way to take an objective look at the beliefs driving your organization. How many are rational and defensible? How many are a mixture of imagination, superstition and the corporate version of Old Wives' Tales? Irrational beliefs and dysfunctional actions in individuals produce depression, neuroses and behavioral problems. In organizations, they lead to a negative, poorly functioning corporate culture; an atmosphere of continual pressure and paranoia; self-defeating choices that only increase the gloom; poor levels of retention of talented staff; and eventual business failure.

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