Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Delusion Habitat

"You know, gentlemen, you yearn for victory, just as I do, but achieved with the apparent effortlessness of gods. Yours are the archaic values of the prep school playground. You deceive no one but yourselves. I believe in the pursuit of excellence, and I’ll carry the future with me." (Harold Abrahams - Chariots of Fire)

As a university student I was impressed with a case study shared by a business lecturer based on the battle of the Somme. At first I thought it odd that management of a business be compared to one of the worst war-time tragedies ever recorded - until it became clear that the lesson was not about the soldiers, but the generals. The moral? Avoid delusion.

In the battle of the Somme the delusion was that the Allies' plan couldn't fail. Anyone suggesting a problem was ultimately denounced as 'negative' or worse a 'traitor' who wanted it to fail. Under these group think conditions all critique was silenced from the top and messages reporting problems from the bottom were ignored. The outcome was an utter and complete disaster. Assuming that their plan had worked, and having ignored (or not heard) protests and reports that contradicted their delusion, the generals ordered the Allied troops into their death the following day.

In any corporation, business, government or economy delusion is no less destructive to the people affected. We saw it in the great depression of the 1930's. We see it now in the current economic nightmare resulting in 2.6m unemployed in the UK alone, and still counting.

Sadly such an economic and political situation is the perfect habitat for delusion (coupled with manipulative management techniques) to thrive. Public sector or private, delusion is a cancer that will lead to ruin.

So how do you avoid delusion?

Avoiding delusion is simple, but it requires the abandonment of manipulation, and the adoption of behaviours that may not be culturally embedded into an organisation, or into ourselves. These delusion curing behaviours are inextricably intertwined, like yin and yang, opposites but essential complimentary partners. They are:
  • Listen carefully
  • Tell the truth

I told you it was simple. Simple and obvious. Delusion is deception. To be deluded is to be 'in the dark', being absent of facts, being absent of the reality of a situation, being absent of the truth.

To avoid delusion then we must put ourselves in possession of the truth, and this requires us to listen and for sources of information to tell the truth.

Regardless of whether we are a CEO, middle manager, teacher or janitor, if we do not listen, or our sources are not truthful, we remain deluded.

So why do our colleagues or managers not do it? Why do we not do it? The answer is to be found in the existing culture of an organisation and the learned behaviours of its employees and managers - what I call the delusion habitat.

The delusion habitat

The delusion habitat is the sum of the culture and behaviours of an organisation and its members that allows delusion to thrive. Basically if the culture of the organisation is one that embeds a failure to listen carefully and discourages telling the truth, in its day to day operation, then we have a delusion habitat.

The culture of delusion reads like the description of a regime controlled by Gaddafi or Ceaușescu... just before they were overthrown. Let's face it, those guys really were deluded, they must have thought they were untouchable and could get away with anything. They did, for a while, but ultimately their delusion led to their ruin, and the ruin of others, as delusion always does.

A newly developing delusion habitat is spotted in what is missing from the behaviours of the organisation and its people. Do they feel free to talk upwardly any more? Do they share problems upwardly any more? Do meetings invite full participation from attendees any more? The natural consequence of failing to listen and discouraging telling the truth means the answer will be "no" to all of the above.

Meanwhile a well established delusion habitat, where a culture of delusion is becoming embedded, might include more serious problems such as oppression, corruption, manipulation, low-trust, cronyism, protectionism, survivalism and absenteeism. The natural consequences of a prolonged failure to listen and prolonged discouragement of telling the truth.

If you know of any of these problems in your organisation you can be pretty sure that delusion is also a problem and is undermining effectiveness, growth and success. This is because the delusion habitat is the antithesis, the polar opposite, of innovation, creativity and openness. 

Where the delusion habitat exists in any degree you can also be certain that the organisation is failing to access the full energy, ingenuity, potential and talents of its people. In the current climate that is a real problem because the most successful organisations tap into all their people's talents.

Listen carefully and tell the truth

While this cure is simple to understand, if we are to make it work in your organisation you need to understand what it is about your organisation's culture or your own behaviours that means that right now people are doing the opposite to the cure.

Not interested

Ever had a manager, colleague or team member who wouldn't listen? Maybe they act like they have all the answers and won't take input from anyone else. Maybe your manager is always making assumptions about the problems you are dealing with, but never actually hears your side. Maybe you are the manager, tired of all the resistance you get to ways of working and essential targets. The other person is always talking, questioning and challenging everything you say, but never listening. You feel unheard. Conversely, how often are you the one who isn't listening when someone else is trying to be heard?

The natural consequence is that by never hearing the other person we never get information that might change our perception, correct our vision, increase our understanding, and lead us to better solutions. By not listening we perpetuate our own delusions to the degree that we deny ourselves alternative perspectives, new insights and information.

The cure - develop the behaviour of listening carefully.

Of course, if you are going to develop the behaviour of listening carefully it would be helpful if there was something worth listening to. That's where the next behaviour comes in.

Shoot the messenger, miss the next message



"Silence please" used to be a common sight in libraries, but it is also common for other organisations to have such a policy in effect whether inadvertently through management style or deliberately through manipulation.

Maybe you once had to give some bad news to a manager, maybe you weren't the cause, you were just the messenger, but either way you still have to deliver the message. Then when you delivered the message you got your head bitten off. Or worse, your professionalism and competence was questioned.

This happened to a friend of mine. He was in a meeting with other junior managers reporting back on the progress of projects they were responsible for. My friend had inherited a project from someone who no longer worked for the organisation and the project had run into a major problem not of my friend's making. When it came to my friend's turn to report on progress, he bravely and clearly stated the nature of the current situation and asked for suggestions on how he might deal with this. One of the first responses was from a senior manager who criticised him for how the earlier part of the project had been established, other managers sat back watching the attack but not feeling able to intervene, another senior manager commented on how poor that performance was, the first senior manager continues critiquing how things should have been done differently 12 months ago but has no suggestions to assist now. After this has gone on for a bit finally another junior manager plucks up the courage to point out to the senior managers that this was an inherited project, my friend was not the cause but was actually trying to hold it together. All of this was done in front of other people. When the discussion finally gets on to considering viable solutions to the problem a senior manager halts it, suggests that can be done another time in a private meeting, and moves on to the next item.

What lessons will my friend and his fellow junior managers learn from this? I suggest the senior manager's approach taught everyone present the following. First, if you bring us bad news you will be 'shot', it doesn't matter if you are to blame. Second, if you bring us bad news and you are to blame it is probably going to be even worse. Third, we criticise in public but we work out solutions in private.

Will my friend ever bother raising a problem like this again? Probably not voluntarily. Will other junior managers ever raise a problem again? Probably not, and they will be even less likely to raise a problem if they caused it.This is an example of a culture that discourages telling the truth.

This approach to reacting to information is seriously flawed, and allows delusion to flourish. In this culture the members of an organisation actively work to keep senior managers in the dark about problems that might threaten their jobs or reputation if they were known. The problem is that some problems are serious enough to threaten everybody's jobs if they are not fixed. Managers remain deluded that all is well, meanwhile the organisation could be unravelling without their knowledge. All because bad news is punished, and telling the truth thereby discouraged.

Managers can be just as guilty of hiding truth from employees. Take the Robert Maxwell scandal in which the businessman had used hundreds of millions of pounds from his employees pensions to try to save his companies from bankruptcy. The end result that his former employees only received 50% of their pension entitlement. Maxwell failed to tell the truth perhaps fearing the consequences, and believing he could fix it without anyone finding out.

You can't fake it

This is why both rules, listen carefully and tell the truth, apply to everyone, regardless of role. Otherwise delusion is not dead.

If people are ever going to be able to tell the truth in order to eliminate delusion, a wholesale culture change to do with how we deal with problems, and how people are held accountable needs to take place. There will always be problems that are so serious that they would lose their jobs if they were culpable, but most problems are not that serious, and yet people still hide them because managers find it hard to break their 'tried and tested' punitive, blame culture approach, or because they find it helpful to their management style to be able to put people in a one-down position in order to overcome even minor resistance or manipulate them.

Whatever managers think they will gain by maintaining old manipulation or blame culture techniques, the one thing they are guaranteed to gain is delusion. They will never be in the full possession of the facts because people will hide the truth from them as long as revealing it is unduly painful, as long as managers discourage telling the truth.

Openness and honesty must replace mistrust and secrecy in all directions for delusion to finally die.

The pretense of openness and trust is a risky strategy at best, and could lead to organisational self destruct at worst. You only need to break the rule once, and everything goes back to how it was, only more so, and they never believe you again.

While it takes both sides to make this work, ultimately the lead must come from the leadership, because it is not an equal relationship, the people with the power must be the unfailing ever patient, carefully listening, ruthlessly truth telling, paragon. Eventually the whole organisation will follow.

So, organisations have a choice.

Listen carefully and tell the truth.

Or remain deluded.


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