I'm pleased to share an outline of key steps – inadvertently taken by leaders – that have the predictable effect of damaging corporate culture and productivity.
Based on the work of Chris Argyris and others, this summary of a key organizational dysfunction provides a clear description of what not to do, as well as a helpful framework leaders can use to evaluate the quality and content of their own “messaging.” It also highlights another way in which leaders create out of what they speak – and in this case, what they’re creating is profoundly negative and detrimental to organizational health.
Inadvertently Creating Organizational Dysfunction
At their most basic level, organizations may be seen as human beings coordinating action (locally or globally) for the purpose of fulfilling some commonly-held purpose or goals. This coordination of action is accomplished through conversations, at a number of different levels and in a number of different ways.
Leaders get paid to have effective conversations; that is, conversations that produce certain results (clarity, shared commitment, productivity, alignment, trust) but not others (confusion, people working at cross-purposes, inefficiency, misunderstanding, distrust.)
Given that language creates and generates (vs. being primarily passive and descriptive) we know that leaders’ conversations dramatically impact their organization’s performance. This shows up in at least two ways: on workplace productivity and culture.
Chris Argyris and others have identified a common, inadvertent – and greatly unhelpful – pattern in some organizational conversations. As seen below, this negative organizational routine can have a “schizophrenic” and dysfunctional effect on employee performance and results:
1. Send a mixed message. “Be a team player…but you have to excel as an individual if you want to progress” or “Follow the process… but don’t get in someone else’s turf” or “Take risks… but never fail” or “Be creative… but stay within boundaries” or “Own your decisions… but check with your boss first” or “Tell me the truth… but never bring me bad news.”
2. Pretend it is not mixed. Ignore the ambiguity or conflict.
3. Make the mixed message and the pretense undiscussable.
4. And finally, to "cement" the problems in place: Make the undiscussability undiscussable!
As we know, making things undiscussable doesn’t mean they aren’t talked about. It just means they aren’t talked about in a forum where something productive can actually be done!
This has the predictable effect of damaging productivity and producing resentment, cynicism and a corporate culture in which top talent is actively seeking a way out.
Are there mixed messages that have the effect of paralyzing people in your organization?
Does your company’s culture support the type of conversations in which this ambiguity may be brought to light?
Are there “sacred cows” in certain hallways, offices or departments?
The invitation is to create a context of safety and respect in which leaders and employees can be honest about their workplace experience, and in doing so provide the basis for dramatic improvements in alignment, productivity and culture.