Everybody is upset

14 04 2011

Low-key organisations need to learn to confront issues openly. When they fail to do so, they follow myths and lose touch with reality.

There are at least three parts to this equation, but first, what on earth am I talking about when I say “low-key organisations”?

If you are looking at a Birkman Group Grid for your team or organisation, this is easy to work out. Turn to the page for Need, and estimate what proportion of the group is in the bottom half of the Grid. The higher the proportion, the more Low-Key the Organisation. This will only be partially moderated by a Usual page that has more people higher up the Grid. Double whammy if it is not just bottom half of the Grid, but the south-east (Blue) corner. Absent Birkman data, then this is the question: in the organisation generally, do people speak up or clam up when they see situations arise? Low-Key = clam up. Clam up because a) they don’t like being verbally assertive and b) (in the case of the double-whammy)because they really feel these things, and that makes them even less readily articulate.

Part One of the Low-Key story I got from that doyenne of Birkman Consultants, Claire Carrison. It is “the dead goat under the table” syndrome. In a low-key organisation, everybody gathers in the board room for a meeting. Under the table there is a dead goat, and it is starting to rot. Are these people aware there is a dead goat under the table? Absolutely – they are far more sensitive than most to atmosphere, so they have long-sinced identified the source of the choking vapours. Is anyone mentioning it? Not openly. Maybe someone makes an oblique aside; perhaps they talk forcefully about it in other contexts (e.g. to their spouse). But in a low-key organisation, no one wants to be the first person to raise the issue; and the more they feel it, the less they want to raise it. In Claire’s version of the story, in walks someone who isn’t Low-Key. They immediately say, “hey guys, there’s a dead goat under the table. Anybody mind if I drag it outside?” Low-Key people all breathe a) again and b) a sigh of relief.

Part  Two of the Low-Key story is that unfortunately it doesn’t always work out like that. My theory, for what it is worth, is that Low-Key people who have been living with the stench of dead goat start believing that there must be some virtue in breathing in the miasma; of course there must be, because the alternative is to accept that they have all been silly enough to put up with an obvious and easily solved problem without moving a finger to deal with it. So – in my observation of a number of extremely Low-Key organisations – when the cheerful non-Low-Key person offers to drag the goat outside, they get mugged. “Tactless!” “This issue is far too sensitive to be mentioned!” “We are taking this discussion offline right now…” (which equals “if you dare to mention this again you will wish you hadn’t”). And the killer: “Everybody is extremely upset that you have raised this. It will take months of work to get things back on track…” In the real world, i.e. outside my caprine story, of course it isn’t always a cheerful top-of-the-Grid person who mentions the problem; it may well be a Low-Key person who nonetheless feels (key word) that the time has come for this issue to be confronted. That means they are doubly devastated when, having paid a price already to simply speak up in the first place, they then get slapped down for their effort. I wish it was as simple as “we are all relieved when someone finally mentions the problem”; but it too often turns into a toxic form of groupthink.

“I mentioned the war,” says Basil Fawlty, “but I think I got away with it.”

The scene is now set for Part Three of the Low-Key story. We move from an implicit assumption that “there must be a really good reason why the dead goat is still there, so touch it not”; to explicit myth making. “That goat has made and saved us more money than any 10 employees combined.” “Other people would be handicapped by having a dead goat under the table, but we are made wittier and smarter by its effusions.” “You will never be truly one of us until you learn to inhale.” The narrative only needs to appear coherent and connected to insiders, not those outside; history now belongs to the first person who can weave a compelling narrative that leaves the goat where it is, probably as the strong (sic) centre of things. So now, who would ever dare to challenge the dead goat?

All of this is fundamentally a crisis of leadership. There are, as far as I can see, only two ways of solving this issue, and both happen in Part One of the story. Route 1 is that a leader, however Low-Key or otherwise they may be, decides that she or he is going to build a culture in which the norm is that we always identify and openly discuss issues when they are first seen / felt ( / smelled?). It can be done. Jim Collins talks about the Stockdale Paradox – confront the brutal facts AND retain faith that you will ultimately prevail. That is a course open to any organisation, including Low-Key ones.

Route 2 has a less good prognosis. “Let’s not confront this issue directly; it will sort itself out in the end”. That is a leadership decision as well; this way we will progress to Part Two and Part Three (where nothing positive can generally be accomplished). The issue does in fact sort itself out in the end; but generally only when the organisation blows apart.

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