Monday, April 30, 2012

Why Organizations Lie To Themselves (& What To Do About It)

January 1 - Resolutions 1  & 2
Photo by Scott Hamlin via Flickr

When you stand on the scale you get the truth about your weight.

For most of us that number isn't a pretty sight and we don't get the answer we want. So we tell ourselves:
  • "Weight doesn't count - you have to go by the BMI."
  • "Maybe I'm retaining water."
  • "It doesn't count if you weigh yourself at night."
  • "I was wearing shoes."
  • "That scale is old. I'm going to wait for my checkup."
Or my favorite one of all:
  • "It's what's inside that counts."
Why do we lie to ourselves, when the truth is right in front of us? And it matters?

Here's the paradox:
  • Logically it would be easy to simply live a lie (i.e. ignore the scale).
  • But humans persistently seek out truth so as to physically survive - not knowing puts us at risk.
  • At the same time we experience emotional discomfort from being confronted by the truth.
  • Therefore we will do virtually anything to lie to ourselves and to keep truth-tellers away from us.
Organizations are just like people except on a larger scale. And they keep themselves from knowing the truth much like individuals do:
  • They admit to dysfunctional behaviors but feign disbelief as to their organizational impact.
  • They bring designated truth-tellers into the organization so that they are "around," but marginalize or silence them, or fail to give them sufficient resources.
  • They hire consultants and commission reports and findings of fact but then leave them on the shelf to grow dust.
  • They give lip service to the importance of self-analysis, but get preoccupied with firefighting crises or create them in order to avoid the real work of organizational change.
  • They avoid measuring performance, reporting on performance, discussing results
Knowing that truth-telling is key to organizational survival, there are two ways of getting to it and using it:
  • Defensive - wait for dysfunction to lead to an outrageous incident that becomes a scandal, then implement reform in response
  • Proactive - implement preventive measures to keep dysfunction in check
Assuming nobody wants a crisis here are some things the organization can do that are similar to what an individual does who can't afford not to live in truth - e.g. a food addict:
  • Frequent monitoring by a third party - someone who isn't beholden to the individual
  • Measuring and metrics - the equivalent of getting on the scale - preferably transparent to all in the organization
  • Preparation to avoid a crisis - just like dieters weight and measure their food before they eat it, organizations have to have mechanisms in place to prevent dysfunctional behavior from taking root and becoming embedded
  • Checks and balances - as people in power tend to serve their own power, the organization must implement mechanisms by which powerful people can be challenged and a dialogue ensured. Electronic employee-to-employee communication is useful in this regard because it eliminates the constraints of waiting for desk-bound people to attend a meeting; it also cuts through the power dynamics of meetings and hierarchical groups.
  • Most importantly, institutionalizing truth telling as a group function rather than an individual one - the organization can't rely on "brave individuals" to tell the truth or cast them in those roles. Rather, there must be groups that are empowered to speak honestly to other groups that can become dysfunctional.
In the end most people, like most organizations, really do want to live in truth, because people in denial put themselves and their organizations at risk.

The key is to committing openly to the truth as a means of survival - making a plan for telling the truth - making that plan public - and then holding the organization and its employees accountable to it.

Good luck!