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Organisations have feelings too

This article first appeared in CultureUniversity.com

Organisations are communities of people, and when those communities become upset, the organisation is in serious trouble.

All organisations face problems from time to time; what matters is whether there is a collective will to solve those problems, or whether the culture of the organisation has broken down in some way: when one group of people feels that another group is trying to impose its vision without any real consensus or agreement, for example, or – especially – feels that one group is not acting in the best interests of the organisation’s core purpose.

Outpourings of anger

A badly-handled downsizing in 2014 by struggling UK supermarket chain, Morrisons, caused a great deal of bad feeling amongst staff, witnessed by outpourings of anger online, some of which are quoted in this article. The company’s stated aim was to remove a tier of store management in order to ‘modernise the way stores are managed with the aim of reducing in-store management tiers, simplifying responsibility and improving customer service.’

It didn’t work, at least not in terms of turning the company around nor apparently, as many staff had feared, in terms of improving customer service. In January 2015, the supermarket replaced its CEO, Dalton Philips, after a five-year stint at the head of the mid-market grocery chain. There were many reasons cited for his replacement; the usual litany of failed initiatives and the headline problem of falling profitability. But the driving force for change seemed to be the realisation that Morrisons had become a broken organisation: that it was not capable of returning to health under its old management.

The organisation as machine

In My Steam Engine is Broken: Taking the organisation from the industrial era to the age of ideas, we argue that many organisations still unwittingly abide by the principles of the early twentieth-century school of Scientific Management, which sees people as components of the organisational machine whose individual performance, like that of any other component, should be analysed and adjusted for maximum efficiency.

In this ‘organisation as machine’ model, people can be ‘let go’ without adverse consequences. The people are merely parts of the machine and machines, after all, have no feelings. In fact, when organisations ‘downsize’, firing large numbers of people without handling the process with great sensitivity, the real emotional damage to the organisation may be severe and even irreparable. Organisations really do have feelings too.

In an interview with Culture University faculty member Marcella Bremer, Kim Cameron, Professor of Management and Organisations at the University of Michigan, reported that companies that downsize tend to perform worse after the downsizing process.  ‘One of the major outcomes of a decade of research,’ Professor Cameron told Bremer, ‘was that almost all of the organisations that downsize deteriorate in performance. Instead of getting better, they get worse. This happens for several reasons; conflict goes up, morale and innovation go down, loss of trust etc.’

It is perfectly possible to downsize successfully, argues Cameron, and about 10-15 percent of companies manage to do so – the ones who act with compassion, gratitude and integrity, practicing what Cameron calls ‘virtuousness.’

“Ripping the heart out of the company”

Morrisons’ own 2014 downsizing seemed to be carried out without much ‘virtuousness’ at all.

Under the headline ‘Morrisons to cut 2,600 jobs in management restructuring’, the UK’s retail trade magazine, The Grocer, reported the supermarket’s plans to cut out a tier of middle management. A number of people, many of them employees of Morrisons, posted comments beneath the article.

One employee (‘Joe’) who was about to made redundant talked about his passion for his job and suggested that the restructuring was ‘ripping the heart out of the company’.

 “I’m a department manager for Morrisons and I’m extremely passionate about what I do. I must say at this point how disappointed I am at Dalton for ripping the heart out of this company. Us department managers and supervisors keep this company running on a day to day basis this just confirms the fact the directors have absolutely no clue as to what’s happening at store level.”

Another (‘Alan’) suggested that staff have been misled about the likelihood of redundancies.

“The message to stores at the beginning of this was that there will be no redundancies. Staff have been lied to throughout. If the focus really is on improving customer service, why have hours been cut back month on month for the past year. To [sic] many customers have already been alienated and this blatant disregard for the very overworked middle management team will do little to swing back any favour.”

‘Jojo’, a Morrisons’ shopper, argued that management were deliberately trying to avoid emotional reactions to the redundancies:

“Morrisons work in under-handed ways. Just recently all the general managers had to move stores. This would be in preparation for the proposed redundancies so that they could give people their notice with no emotional attachment.”

‘Ade anti Morrison’ talked about the ‘rude’ and ‘arrogant’ attitude of management,

“It’s no wonder they’re going down the pan, arrogant and small minded head office management who rule by fear . . . One area manager I worked for was the most rudest [sic], arrogant, small minded bigoted aggressive person I’ve ever had the misfortune to work for …”

Testing the organisation’s emotional state

This small sample of outpouring of employees’ felt experiences suggests a dreadful disjoint between the intentions of senior management and the perception of management actions on the shop floor. This unhappiness, this ‘upset’ is a far better indicator of the health of the organisation than any number of metrics.

Failed strategies can be changed, mistakes can be rectified; but failed relationships between the core groups within an organisation spell disaster. If you want to know what’s really going on in an organisation, test its emotional state. Organisations really do have feelings too.

 

 

CultureU-Fences

Creating organisational cultures for the age of ideas

This article first appeared in CultureUniversity.com

Creating modern organisational cultures

By Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

Many modern organisations are locked into a mindset – an organisational culture – that began with the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth-century Britain and was fully developed during the Second Industrial Revolution in the US. The great success of these revolutions – creating modern business and generating huge wealth – makes it easy to believe that what worked as a way of managing great corporations in the early 1900s is still the best way to run an organisation in the twenty-first century. But times have changed.

My Steam Engine Is Broken: Taking the organization from the industrial era to the Age of Ideas, sets out three core, culture-related ideas.

  1. Many organisations have a culture that is still unconsciously modelled on the managerial, ‘Steam Engine’ mindset of the industrial era; a culture which is fundamentally unsuited to the modern workplace.
  2. There are a number of core Steam Engine behaviours which actively prevent or destroy the things that modern organisations know that they most need from their employees – engagement, commitment and creativity, amongst others.
  3. Addressing and changing these core Steam Engine behaviours – little by little and piece by piece – will in time achieve a radical transformation of the organisation, creating a working environment suited to the Age of Ideas and freeing up the energies of the organisation’s members.

Locked in an industrial mindset

The great corporations of the early twentieth century quickly adopted Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, which argued that a new class of executives – managers and planners – were needed to reveal the ‘scientific’ approach to any particular task, which would yield the one best way of performing that task. Taylor was unabashedly prepared to argue that most workers were, in his words, ‘too stupid’ to discern the ‘science’ of their activities. Even workers with considerable skills carrying out complex tasks were, in Taylor’s view, not the right people to deal with ‘the science’ of their work, since even if they had the capacity properly to plan the best approach to their work, this would distract them from the work itself.

What was needed was another other sort of being: the manager/planner. Out of this patronising worldview came the persistent modern model in which every worker must have a manager, and that managers are superior to workers. Whatever Taylor may have said about ‘friendly’, ‘harmonious’, and ‘intimate’ cooperation between managers and workers, the mould was cast: workers worked; managers and planners (needed in surprisingly large numbers) managed and planned.

When ‘the  one best way’ is imposed on people in this way by a rigid, status-laden hierarchy, it creates the kind of dehumanising, de-energising, stressful and unhappy working environments that are still far too common today. It is rare to come across any organization where aspects of these behaviours are not still clearly in place, with the all too visible result that people feel put upon rather than inspired, and what should be a genuine community working together to achieve the same end is turned into an unnatural environment where one class of employee is constantly assessing, appraising and judging the other class. This is particularly damaging in the knowledge economy: when people are employed for their ideas and for their unique human skills (such as emotional intelligence), we shouldn’t be surprised if treating them like machines whose outputs are monitored and rated leads to disenchanted employees.

Ten ‘Steam Engine’ behaviors

Of the ten Steam Engine behaviours that we identify in the book, the two most pernicious are those to do with control and measurement. Every manager wants to feel that they are ‘in control’, and measuring everything that moves helps to create an illusion of control. But it is an illusion: a moment’s reflection reveals that we can measure and control processes, but not people. Dealing with people – human beings – requires a human approach. It’s trickier, but it’s perfectly doable. The old ‘command and control’ model really is past its sell-by date.

If a new approach to control and measurement will take some adjusting to, the other dimensions that we discuss, such as innovation, communication, devolved leadership, networking, diversity and other aspects of organisational behaviour find a ready audience. ‘You’re right,’ most leaders agree: ‘we really do need to get better at those things.’

The behaviours that are most in need of change will differ (of course) from organisation to organisation; it is the precise mix of these various behaviors that creates each organisation’s individual culture.

Some leaders may be concerned that their corporate culture is not good at enabling fluent, honest communication or at encouraging colleagues to develop vibrant networks of internal and external contacts. Others may worry that there is insufficient genuine diversity in their organization or that their organizational culture fails to encourage innovation. As Edgar Schein argues in a popular post on CultureUniversity.com, to identify which behaviors are having the worst effects it is a good idea to start with a business problem, and work back to the behaviours that are driving this.

Only you can judge what is most relevant to your own situation. Our argument is that all of these kinds of outmoded, Steam Engine behaviors interact with each other and that you will find (we believe) that when you address any one of these issues and begin to change the organisation’s behaviour in that one dimension, then the resultant new way of being quickly leads on to new perceptions and different ways of behaving in the other, related dimensions.

Setting out to ‘change the corporate culture’ with one almighty heave is difficult, daunting, and usually doomed to failure. Changing the organisation’s behaviour little by little, piece by piece, is achievable, and will slowly but surely bring about a real transformation, moving the organisation from an industrial mindset to one that is suited to the modern reality of our working lives.