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Tuesday, April 24, 2020

Organizational pathology: Why does it matter?

Part 1 of a series on the illnesses of today’s organizational cultures

Most articles produced on the topics of burnout, stress, and overwork approach the problems from the viewpoint of individuals and their choices. There’s often an unspoken assumption that the organizational context is a given: constant pressure to perform, tight deadlines, impossible expectations. From this perspective, the only way to cope lies in changing your day-to-day responses to a crazy world. This series aims to look at stress and overwork from the perspective of the organization and the diseases of its internal operation.
Many of us have suffered under bosses who are jerks. Their tantrums, callous disregard for others, pompous self-importance, arrogance, and obsessive ambition were the background to our daily lives—and the immediate source of most of the stress and frustrations of the job. But were they born this way; or did something in the organization itself make them jerks?

In an individual case, either or both of these questions might deserve to be answered “yes”. Many bosses have significant personality flaws that cause them to behave like *ssholes. Others might have been less obnoxious, if only the organizational culture hadn’t encouraged—even forced—them to show the worst side of their characters.

A sick organizational culture is bound to cause problems for all those who work within it.

While dealing with stress and burnout from an individual point of view is both valid and useful, personal lifestyle and behavioral choices are not the only factors involved—nor always the most significant ones. A sick organizational culture is bound to cause problems for all those who work within it. Unless it is reformed, no amount of personal change will do more than act as a temporary Band-Aid to hold people together and keep them functioning despite the poison all around.

Every organization develops a unique character, based on an institutionalized set of automatic approaches to the world. That is what we usually call the organizational culture. Some are benign, others strongly poisonous, but all serve as the background to people’s working lives. A toxic leader in a basically benign culture can usually be held in check. If he or she acts out such character flaws too often or too much, the organization is likely to move to curb the bad behavior. Only silence on the part of those who suffer will mask the problem, as least for a time.

But what of “ordinary” leaders, neither especially good nor markedly bad? What will happen to them . . ?

A good leader in a toxic organization will also find him or herself rejected. Most will remove themselves well before that happens, since the poisonous culture around them will be more than they can tolerate. But what of “ordinary” leaders, neither especially good nor markedly bad? What will happen to them, if the culture around them constantly promotes negative, oppressive, Hamburger Management behavior?

I was interested to note on Bob Sutton’s blog that a newspaper article reviewing the French translation of his book, “The No *sshole Rule,” (“Objectif Zéro-Sale-Con” in France) was titled: “L’entreprise, pépinière de cons...” In English, this means something like: “The company, a tree nursery for *ssholes.”

Sadly, this statement is all too true. Many organizations act exactly like garden nurseries where jerks and *ssholes are grown in bulk. These enterprises cling to cultures that force any good managers to leave, allow bad ones to flourish, and shift the great mass of in-betweens slowly and inexorably towards the dark side.

In the next few days, I plan to review some of the most typical categories of toxic organizational cultures, drawing heavily on the work of Manfred Kets de Vries, a Dutchman who is professor of Leadership Development at INSEAD, the premier European business school, as well as my own experience.

Organizations have lives of their own that impact all who come into contact with them. If the culture that develops internally demands results at any cost, it is inevitable that the organization’s leaders will respond by creating the ideal conditions for stress and burnout: irrational demands, overwhelming pressure, casual cruelty, macho posturing, and suffocating conformity. Since these are precisely the conditions that will also nurture the greatest concentration of jerks, the management class of such an organization will rapidly teem with *ssholes of every type.

Organizational problems demand organizational solutions. You cannot expect personal change, however good in itself, to have much impact. That’s why Slow Leadership requires more than individual development. It requires that organizations themselves understand how counter-productive and negative their behavior may have become. They too have to admit to being *ssholes.



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2 Comments:

Anonymous said...

Check out the book Alpha Male Syndrome (Harvard Business School Press, 2006) for some insight on some of the bosses you are referring to: www.alphamalesyndrome.com.

11:28 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for the link. Most interesting. You might also like to see the article "Psychopaths and sycophants by Max McKeown.

12:06 PM  

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