Some organizations are poor or marginal performers, some high, and some truly great. Jim Collins, in “Good to Great” (2001) describes the differences among the latter two. Much of the difference boils down to people and the culture that is fostered within the organization. They foster learning in all forms, including learning from mistakes. They are typically “humble” and accept helpful input from outside, admitting when and where they need to improve.
We know from Gustavo Grodnitzky’s book, “Culture Trumps Everything: The Unexpected Truth about the Ways Environment Changes Biology, Psychology, and Behavior”, 2014, that culture does indeed have tremendous influence over people’s behavior.
Organizations are made up of people, and we know that “likes attract”. Organizational “culture” reflects that of its members. At the same time, that culture influences its members. New members (e.g.: most new employees) will learn to adapt to the existing culture in order to fit in and perform effectively. When new senior executives become part of the organization they are often charged with leading changes. They have a unique opportunity to reverse that effect and influence the culture.
Lower performing companies tend to be resistive to change and outside influence. The cultures are often dysfunctional in a number of ways. Even when they know their performance can be improved, they stubbornly want to improve on their own. Einstein said that you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it. These organizations seem to want to do just that.
In psychology there’s a phenomenon known as “counter-dependency”. People with this tendency will refuse help when it is offered and won’t even seek it when confronted with a problem. Organizations that are poorer performers, often exhibit this same tendency. They often use high cost of the help that’s offered, the time it will take, the culture, and other excuses to avoid help. They are failing to help themselves. None of us has all the answers.
I’ve done many assessments using a “maturity scale” that ranges from innocence to excellence. Its psychological equivalent is a learning model known as the “hierarchy of competence”. At the bottom is “unconscious incompetence” where intuition is just wrong and won’t work – innocence on my scale. The individual (or organization) isn’t even aware that it is incompetent.
The next level is “conscious incompetence” where analytical approaches may be used, but incorrectly. There is an awareness of the need and opportunity to improve and there are attempts to do so. But those are often misguided and fail to deliver the needed results. The organization in this state is becoming “aware” by waking up to its state and what may be required to address it. The example below illustrates that situation.
Next comes a period of learning, or “understanding” in my assessment scale. The organization gains awareness of what works and what doesn’t, and then puts that knowledge it into practice. This is “conscious competence” in which the individual and organization is deliberately learning and developing competence.
Eventually a recognizable level of “competence” is achieved. Organizations that have achieved “competence” are generally high performers and they know it. A few will go beyond that and develop high levels of expertise in a few specific areas. Often they are not even aware of how good they are – they now “unconsciously competent” and they stand out as “excellent”.
Counter dependent organizations are likely to be either poor performers, or arrogant high performers in decline. They resist outside influence and help and often fail to ask for help, even when they realize they need action.
If such an organization is technically strong (i.e.: lots of engineers or an engineering culture), then tend to seek technical solutions. Strong technical (engineering) cultures often miss the cultural context necessary to bring the whole organization along. Technical solutions work for technical problems, but many of those are rooted in culture, not technology. Initiatives with overly technical objectives are often doomed to fail.
Recently I’ve been speaking with caring individuals in a resource industry company that is under-performing. They have chosen a technical solution, hoping to achieve improved results. Those individuals reached out looking for advice on how to get senior management to see that the initiative is not working. It is burning cash to no avail. Several technical activities are being carried out without regard to the work done by the organization before the initiative began. On the ground, the message being received is a negative one – their earlier efforts were no good and they must follow this new path, which very few of them see as correct. This isn’t uncommon in organizations where senior management has initiated changes without consulting those at the working sites and levels.
At the operational sites, they are observing consultants (many junior) coming in, taking a long time to redo what they had already done, and imposing new ways of doing things without regard to why things were being done the way they were. By ignoring the history, an important contributor to culture, these consultants are alienating the very people they are attempting to help. They are repeating mistakes and relearning what many at the organization already know. Those mistakes are hurting the consultants’ credibility.
By turning elsewhere for advice, those individuals demonstrate that they feel no ownership of the current initiative, and that they care enough to want to fix it. From a change management perspective, the initiative is failing badly. Yet management doesn’t want to hear about it. When concerns have been expressed, they admonished to keep quiet unless they have something good to say. Individuals who see the problems and speak up are being silenced by a dysfunctional management culture. That is toxic to any initiative and organization.
If you’ve got a case of under-performance despite repeated attempts to improve it, consider that your organization may be suffering counter-dependency. It needs a shake-up, and that is best to come as a result of conscious choices, rather than deteriorating circumstances that force changes at the top that will (hopefully) affect beneficial change. Recognizing that counter-dependency may be a problem is a big first step.
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