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When to Adapt and When to Resist

It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society” J Krishnamurti

Pitagorski FeatureArticle March20Adaptability is an important trait. It is what one needs to be effective in changing situations or when moving from one environment to another. For a consultant, new employee or anyone who is working in an organization that is undergoing change it is necessary to be able to adjust to current conditions in order to manage projects or simply to be an effective team member.

But what if the environment is unhealthy? Does one adjust to it and become part of the problem? Or, does one resist and attempt to inject health?

Of course there is no single easy answer. As with all complex issues the answer is “It depends.” It depends on just how sick the environment is, what one’s level of authority is, ones role, skill level as change agent or facilitator, and more.

Behavioral Issues

Take a situation in which a new employee, an experienced project manager, finds himself in a position reporting to a verbally abusive boss, who gives incomplete and fuzzy direction and then loudly berates, using vulgar language, those reporting to her for making errors when they fail to meet her unstated expectations.

This has been accepted as normal behavior. The staff has adjusted to it. The new guy is appalled. He is faced with a tough decision. Does he confront his boss and make it clear that their behavior is unacceptable? Does he go to the HR department to register a complaint when everyone tells him that the HR department won’t do anything and the situation has been going on for years? Does he adjust to the sick society like everyone else?

Some project environments are only interested in result, successfully completed projects. If the bottom line results are good then senior management doesn’t want to rock the boat and deal with things like abusive behavior. Behavioral issues are just too touchy-feely.

Other environments lack the transparency that would let senior management know about such behavior; nobody complains so no one knows. If anyone does complain there must be something wrong with them; they’re just trouble makers.

In this situation the new guy resigned after confronting the abusive boss and getting more abuse. Upon leaving he was given a rare exit interview during which he reported the issue. There was no change. The guy was seen as a trouble maker and the boss was not held accountable. Perhaps verbally abusive behavior was not important enough to rate as an issue alongside sexual abuse or discrimination. The job was getting done as well as it ever had. No one else was complaining. 

Process Dysfunction

Process dysfunction is another form of organizational sickness. Here the situation is exemplified by operating procedures and policies that get in the way of progress or reduce productivity and effectiveness.

For example, a manager who controls application development and who reports directly to the CEO unilaterally decides which requests for automation are to be brought to the application development group for estimates and ultimate action. He views requests for the elimination of unwieldy manual processes as whining by department heads who can’t justify their requests with hard dollar savings or impacts on sales. In one instance a relatively easy to automate process, a work flow, was quickly dismissed without even determining how much the development activity would cost. This dismissal was done in the face of input from three departments that said there would be elimination of frustrating effort, much rework and the probable ability to take advantage of vendor discounts for early payment that were being missed because of errors and delays arising out of the manual process.

The department heads have adapted. They adjusted their expectations to the current situation, feeling as if they had no recourse but to continue doing business as usual. They could not justify their request based solely on bottom line savings or increased revenues. 

Consultants working for the manager as well as his direct reports see the problem for what it is but have no recourse other than to go over the bosses head and suffer the consequences for doing so.

Adjusting in this case means allowing a dysfunctional process to perpetuate.

Change the System

In both of these situations the problem is systemic. The individuals involved are caught in a sick system. How do we manage such situations?

From within it is very difficult without support from the very top and even then one must be careful not to move too quickly or directly confront entrenched people in influential and important positions.

In the first case candid 360 degree appraisals would bring the abusiveness issue to light, confront the abuser and possible get them to change their ways or be eliminated. Implementing 360 degree appraisals is a major change, often taking years of well managed facilitation. It takes time for people who have adjusted to a “sick society” to un-adjust and readjust to new paradigm for health.

In the second case, a portfolio management process, in which either the department heads or someone representing them has a significant role in deciding which requests to consider and act upon, will resolve the problem. 

This requires a commitment from above to change the status quo. The person in charge must give up dictatorial authority and open to a value system that includes making life easier for the people working in the organization, even when that doesn’t directly lead to bottom line savings. 

There needs to be recognition that eliminating unnecessary manual effort and the inefficient work flows that go along with it is a valuable end in itself because it frees people to think and shift their attention to quality and to serving internal clients more effectively.

Values Based Cultural Change 

In both cases a cultural change is needed. Cultural change must be motivated by something of value. Increasingly it is being recognized that working in a healthy environment leads to better performance. Happy people work better than unhappy people. Chronic “sickness” along with its less than optimal performance becomes unacceptable as a norm.

Theory X (command and control, no-feedback allowed) management styles have long been viewed as dysfunctional, yet they persist, often because there is a lack of transparency and a fear of disrupting the status quo. This is even more pronounced when the job market is tight and fear of the consequences of job loss is high. It is exacerbated by systems, policies and procedures that are antiquated and focused too heavily on immediate bottom line results rather than medium and long term benefits.

It is each individual’s responsibility to at least think twice about adjusting to a sick society/system. Have the courage to find appropriate ways of bringing health to your situations. If you are in a position to do so, institute regular process reviews and promote candid feedback regarding management performance. If that is above your level of authority, see if you can begin dialogue with peers, subordinates and superiors about what it means to approach optimal performance and what stands in the way of doing it.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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