Friday, April 27, 2020

The Obsessive/Compulsive Organization

The final part of a series on the illnesses of today’s organizational cultures

The obsessive/compulsive organization appears to be highly efficient from the outside, with a clearly-focused strategy and tight internal controls and procedures. However, like individuals who suffer from obsessive/compulsive disorder, all that strict control has gotten out of hand, resulting in a morass of rule-bound bureaucracy. Whenever that happens, an organization becomes incapable of reponding flexibly to the world. Following the rules is everything, even if it results in crippled performance.
Our modern-day fashion for exalting measurement as the pinnacle of management has brought us probably more organizations suffering from an obsessive/compulsive outlook than any of the other disorders of organizational culture. Most of them display some degree of “paralysis by analysis.” Their leaders have big spreadsheets and small hearts—and sometimes small brains too. Instead of management being an art, linked to the ever-changing needs of a community of individuals, it is treated as a pseudo-science of numbers and rules.

Obsessive/compulsive organizations delight in a “command-and-control“ format for leadership. Control matters more than anything else. Ever heard the saying: “What cannot be measured, cannot be controlled?” That was an obsessive/compusive organizational leader speaking. Organizations and leaders of this type seek to control every aspect of their internal and external environments, producing in the process truckloads of rule books, mountains of procedure manuals, forests of printed instructions, acres of complex analyses, Powerpoint presentations without end, and boundless deserts of policy guidelines. Nothing must be left to chance. Every action must be laid down precisely, then checked constantly by measurements or direct observation. Being a boss in an obsessive/compulsive organization is more like being a tax auditor than a business person, a mentor, or a coach.

You can recognize an obsessive/compulsive organization like this:
  • There will be a rigid and closely-defined sets of rules for everything, backed up with elaborate measurements, complex information systems, and exhaustive evaluations.
  • Management will have become ritualized into pre-set actions, based on complicated systems of daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly reporting that cover nearly every aspect of the organization’s functioning.
  • Much of what is checked and reported on will appear trivial at best, pointless at worst.
  • Compliance with procedures and guidelines is unquestioned. Non-compliance is a mortal sin.
  • The organization will have a clear, focused strategy, yet will base it on a narrow, single theme, such as cost-cutting or measuring financial ratios—often to the total exclusion of any other factors.
  • “Command-and-control” will be the habitual form of leadership.
  • In an organization like this, your status and power depend on your position in the—complex and rigid —hierarchy. All relationships aree highly formalized and subject to status.
  • Everyone will be permanently anxious, in case they have offended against some unexpected rule or procedure. Since there are so many rules, knowing them all and ensuring total compliance will probably be impossible, but that will not be accepted as an excuse.
  • No one will trust anyone. In place of trust, bosses demand strict compliance with pre-set rules. Then they will check up on every action and measure every outcome, because they don’t trust their people to comply either.
Working in an obsessive/compulsive organization reduces you to being an impersonal cog in a huge, bureaucratic machine. Forget about spontaneity or flexibility. Such a rigid organization will continue to resist change long after it has become clear that it is bleeding money and destined for the scrap heap. Since its managers have never been allowed to exercise personal judgment, the very idea of change or accountability will probably terrify most of them.

The other organizational “personality disorders” in this short series produce leaders who display pathological anger, suspicion, callousness, cruelty, and arrogance. In the obsessive/compulsive organization, leaders are coldly detached, formal, and distant, more interested in tracking their ratios and measurements than in human beings. Only rebellion is treated harshly. For the rest, the boss is likely to be no more than the current person who issues orders. If you comply, all will be well. If you don’t, or your statistical performance measurements are below par, even your discipline and dismissal will be handled through impersonal procedures.

Burnout in obsessive/compulsive organizations is rare. Since there is no scope for initiative, there is little demand (or opportunity) for workaholism. Stress, however, is everywhere, driven by the constant measurements, the suffocating control, and the mindless obsession with following every tiny rule. People in this type of organization usually display an odd mixture of anxiety and passivity: they worry about minutiae, but feel helpless to make any change. When the market shifts significantly, the organization continues on its chosen course, heedless of the change, until, like a tortoise in the middle of the road, it fails to avoid what is coming and is quickly squashed.

If you just want a salary, with no demands on you for anything beyond submission and obedience, an obsessive/compulsive organization offers some attraction. Though the rules lock you in iron bands, they also protect you. Compliance absolves you of all responsibility for the outcome. Strict procedures for managing people make sure that you will not be treated according to the whims of an individual boss. If you do your set work conscientiously, the constant measurement should not be a problem. Just don’t expect to be able to express any creativity or individualism. Nor to be able to change anything.

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