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In an earlier post, ‘Culture for the age of ideas’, we argued that the culture of many organisations is still unthinkingly based on the old industrial-era mindset of scientific management and command and control. We suggested that there are a number of persistent organisational behaviours that have their origins in this outmoded culture that are now actively preventing the things that modern organisations know they most need: employee engagement, commitment and creativity, for example.

Our book, My Steam Engine Is Broken: Taking the organization from the industrial era to the age of ideas was based on Mark Powell’s twenty years’ experience in management and strategy consultancy and on his ten-year experience of designing and running leadership and management development programmes at the University of Oxford. More precisely, the book was the result of Mark’s thousands of conversations with people at all levels of organisations large and small, and across several different cultures. The end result was the identification of 10 organisational ‘paradoxes’ – behaviours intended to advance the organisation’s interests that are often experienced by employees in a negative way. The behaviors are paradoxical because they tend to produce results that are the exact opposite of what the organisation sets out to achieve.

In this article there is only enough space to give a two-sentence description of these ten paradoxical behaviours and their unintended outcomes, but we think that this will be enough to offer a good insight into our thinking. We all tend to recognise these industrial-era organisational behaviours, just as we also instinctively recognise what ‘good’ behaviours would look like, and why.

Ten paradoxes of organisational behavior

  1. Control

Management seeks control, but control can be experienced as removing autonomy and preventing self-organisation and innovation. Managers gain ‘control’ but lose commitment and creative input.

  1. Measurement

Control requires measurements and indicators, but these can become obsessive, short-termist and even misleading. More importantly, when we try to ‘measure’ people with techniques similar to those that we use to measure processes, people feel labelled, diminished and manipulated.

  1. Efficiency

Mechanical and logistical processes must be as efficient as possible, but it’s different when people are involved. Some petty ‘efficiencies’ impact people very negatively, saving a few pounds at an immeasurable cost in lost energy.

  1. Innovation

Organisations know that they need to innovate, but much organisational behaviour is specifically designed to prevent it. Innovative thinking is ‘risky’, by definition, and the ‘control’ mindset hates risk.

  1. Communication

Communication is a dialogue, not a set of instructions and most organisational modes of communication are not genuine dialogues: information ‘cascades’ down imaginary pyramids; meetings create an illusion of real debate. ‘Communication’ seems to be increasing in volume and declining in quality.

  1. Physical environment

Workspaces should be designed to encourage good communication, chance encounters and the flow of ideas. Industrial-era workspaces are designed to keep individuals in their allocated, functional space and enable supervision.

  1. Self-organisation

People are rarely allowed to organise their own work. When they are, the results can be remarkable, as shown in this Harvard Business Review paper on GE Aviation’s move to a ‘teaming’ work structure.

  1. Leadership

Leadership should be devolved, but is often hoarded. Everyone should be encouraged to lead whenever their natural leadership skills are most appropriate and valuable.

  1. Networking

New ideas tend to happen at boundaries, when people from different parts of the organisation reach out and interact, but few organisations manage to enable productive networking throughout the whole operation. The industrial-era organisation sees ‘networks’ as connections to be exploited; real networks are organic and mutually beneficial.

  1. Diversity of opinion

Organisations tend to become homogenous environments where contrarians are unwelcome. Diversity of gender and ethnicity is no guarantee of true diversity of opinion; like any ecosystem, organisations need a real diversity of ideas to evolve and survive in a rapidly changing environment.

Little by little, piece by piece

In our book, as in our earlier post, we argue that the process that was most likely to succeed in transforming organisational cultures was one of changing behaviours ‘little by little and piece by piece’ – identifying the outmoded behaviour patterns that are doing the most damage to the organisation’s culture and tackling them one by one. We also believe that improvements made to any one aspect of organisational behavior are highly likely to spill over onto other behaviours – once we realise that we are not communicating effectively, to take one example, it may become obvious that we are not networking effectively either; or that our leadership is hierarchical rather than devolved, which is why we are preventing self-organisation…

All of these behaviours stem from a common mindset; once the flaw in one behaviour is recognised and addressed, the implications can ripple out through the organisation quite rapidly.

We see that we are among friends here. Culture University’s Marcella Bremer writes in a post about her concept of ‘non-linearity: [changing] one small habit at a time to create a lasting, different outcome.’ Marcella proposes a programme of working in small teams to discover and take ownership of the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of change, arguing that value systems get translated into ‘specific, daily behaviours and underlying assumptions’ and that we should focus on ‘the crucial behaviours and beliefs will make the difference to success’.

In another recent post, Culture University’s John Katzenbach also proposes that we should start with behaviours: ‘change behaviours, and mind-sets will follow’, says John, arguing that ‘culture is much more a matter of doing than of saying’ and that trying to change a culture by top-down messaging and training and development programmes is unlikely to work. John proposes a 10-stage process for mobilising our organisational cultures.

Energising organisational cultures

We hope that the ‘ten paradoxical behaviours’ described here might be a useful starting point for organisations setting out to explore which behaviours they might most need to change in order to create an enabling, empowering culture fit for the age of ideas.

We can make intellectual decisions about what we would like our organisational culture to be, but the foundation of those cultures is the set of behaviours, often unwittingly inherited from our relatively recent process of industrialisation, that we enact each day at work without considering their impact on our colleagues and the consequent effect on the organisation’s energy level. Change those behaviours, and you energise the culture.