We hear a lot of corporate and government leaders speaking about the greater need for integrity, honesty, and systematic transparency. Yet, at a deeper level we all feel let down by many of the broken promises they make, however, that doesn’t stop us from hoping that one day, a leader, or leaders will actually deliver on what they continually promise.
In the meantime, what I would propose is a more critical approach in assessing and challenging what our corporate and government leaders espouse as ideal behaviours and actions and how that actually translates in ‘real life’. I call it ‘Discussing Undiscussables’, which is a reality based approach that should bring us all greater protection from ourselves, because let’s face it, we have seen the enemy and the enemy is us. By keeping silent about the obvious gaps between high sounding rhetoric and the failure to ‘walk the walk’, we only have ourselves to blame.
Having said that, this is not as easy as it first sounds, because there are obvious pitfalls associated with boldly challenging those in positions of power. It is no fun being a lone ‘whistleblower’, in fact, you sometimes stand a better chance of howling at the moon and being heard, than you do by standing on your principles and being heard.
In order to illustrate what I mean, I have borrowed from the research of others, such as Chris Arygris, who is Professor of Education and Organisational Behaviour in the Graduate Schools of Education and Businessat Harvard University. Also worth noting is Eileen Shapiro, author of Fad Surfing in The Boardroom and former consultant with McKinsey & Company, Inc.
The key emphasise of Arygris’ research focuses on learning dysfunctions that seriously inhibit organisational learning, he claims, “There is much that we are not allowed to talk about in our organisations. Special codes of silence mean a whole range of issues that ought to be discussed are not. People know what can be discussed and what cannot. But, but not being able to talk about some things seriously inhibits our capacity (individually and collectively) to learn.
He gave us the ‘theory ˆ in -use’ and and theory ˆ in ˆ action’ contraststhat helps explain why leaders do different things from what they think they do. When leaders explain why they do the things they do (their ‘theory -in-use’) it is often the case that this does not match up with the actions actually taken by those leaders (their ‘ theory ˆ in -action).
Arygris gives us the concepts of ‘single loop’ and ‘double loop’ learning, explaining why so many of us deal with problems without learning from them, and thus are unable to prevent the same problems from arising again.
‘Single loop’ learning allows us to respond to a problem and fix it; ‘double loop’ learning enables us to ask why the problem occurred in the first place. If you can only do the first and not the second then you are likely to be fixing a lot of the same problems over and over again (for those who complain about being so busy putting out fires, that you are never able to get around to doing real work, this will be obvious to you).
One of Arygris’s more practical but underexploited concepts is the idea the there are matters in all organisations that are simply undiscussable.
Further, the undiscussability of these matters is also undiscussable. Even at a glance, this goes a long way towards explaining why sometimes the people in organisations cannot see the wood for the trees, and continually do things that are known to lead to failure. If a detour from the pathway that is known to lead to failure involves wandering into undiscussable territory, then we can predict that the organisation will press on with the well known paths to proven failure. Such organisations cannot learn.
This anti-learning mechanism is explained by Arygris as ‘primary inhibitory loops’. He describes these as ‘self ˆ reinforcing patterns of action strategies and anti-learning consequences’. Managers or politicians, in trying to solve problems, tend to resort to tactics that prevent them from speaking about situations truthfully. This leads them into a ‘loop’ of avoiding the real problem, which is followed by more conversations that avoid the real problem. After a bit of this, those involved in this process all agree that they are wasting their time but don’t understand why this is the case. Everyone leaves the discussion feeling dissatisfied but notknowing why nothing was achieved.
Leaders are trapped in these loops for various reasons (Arygris calls them ‘conditions of error’) such as vagueness, ambiguity, untestability, scattered information, information withheld, undiscussability, uncertainty, inconsistency and incompatibility. The ‘undiscussability’ error is common knowledge to most people working in organisations. Most people know the matters that cannot be raised openly in discussion in their organisation, and if such matters are raised they are likely to be ignored. Such matters are clearly known to all, but mentioned by none.
These loops are part of the phenomenon Argyris calls ‘organisational defence routines’: „These actions and policies, enacted within an organisation setting, that are intended to protect individuals from experiencing embarrassment or threat, while at the same time preventing individual’s, or organisations as a whole, from identifying the causes of embarrassment or threat in order to correct the relevant problem.
These routines are entirely logical and rule-driven. Essentially the logic comprises four rules:
1.Craft messages that contain inconsistencies.
2.Act as though the messages are not inconsistent.
3.Make ambiguity and inconsistency in the message undiscussable.
4.Make the undiscussability of the undiscussable also undiscussable.
A simple but common example of how the rules apply is when a CEO announces a new initiative, such as encouraging employees to be more innovative, empowered, and customer ˆ focused. Most employees go along with the new initiatives despite knowing that the CEO does not mean it ˆ those who act on the new initiative (do something different, use their own judgement, refund an unhappy customer) risk getting in trouble. Some do get into trouble and are dealt with. The whole process is known as a charade but no one talks about it in that way. The failure of the CEO’s initiative is attributed to other reasons, such as lack of commitment by employees. The initiative is soon forgotten. The organisation has gained nothing and learned nothing.
Here are some other classic examples of typical ‘undiscussables’ that should be familiar to everyone. Eileen Shapiro, presents it as ‘The Rules Of The Internal Game Balance Sheet’ in her chapter on ‘Decoding The Corporate Culture’.
THE RULES OF THE INTERNAL GAME BALANCE SHEET
Espoused rule (sounds like a corporate asset)
Real rule (Functions as a corporate liability)
Quality comes first.
Get the tones out no matter what.
Never sell the customer something they don’t need.
Get the order; he who books the most revenues gets the most goodies.
Innovate! We need innovation and we celebrate honourable failures.
No matter what, failure is a failure; it’s far, far worse to have tried and failed than to have never to have tried at all.
We take the long term-view of our businesses.
Miss your budget numbers and you’re dead meat.
We have an open environment; speak up if you ever have a concern.
Accentuate the positive and just sublimate the negative (unless you have a death wish)
Teams are our lifeblood.
Promotions go to individual contributors.
Developing our people is our most important task.
Managers who spend their time developing their people are weenies, neither tough enough personally nor strong enough analytically to do the job around here.
We are a learning organisation; help us improve continuously.
Don’t rock the boat, or else!
Compensation is a private matter between you and your boss; do not discuss it with others.
Share compensation numbers with peers; it’s the only way to create are liable ruler for measuring how well you are doing.
We are a nonhierarchical collegial organisation and we follow the golden rule of reciprocity in our treatment of each other.
Golden rule, ha!; I kissed up to my boss to get where I was going and now you need to kiss up to me.
Run this business as if it were your own; manage for the long-haul.
Fast trackers never stay in the same job for more than two years so go after actions that look big initially (but someone else has to implement) or that give great initial results (no matter what the long ˆ term costs).
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