After working in the field of organizational development for several years, I have had to learn many hard truths about organizational change in business.
The first hard truth I’ve had to accept about business is that the good guys don’t always win. I know of several massively dysfunctional organizations that make tons of money and are recognized as the darlings of Wall Street. In these organizations, vision and values have no connection to reality, and people remain primarily because they get a piece of the action in the form of “sticky” compensation plans or relatively rich benefits. While these organizations may advertise themselves as places where people matter, or as collaborative environments where people can make a difference, the truth is that their employee relations strategy is to pay off the people they need, and replace the rest whenever it’s convenient or practical to do so.
Truth #1: Cynical, sad, but true: organizational success, defined only in bottom line terms, has nothing to do with whether or not people are happy, fulfilled or have the opportunity to find meaning in their work. If people believe that profit is all that matters, whether you’re talking about business or personal profit, there is little you can do to change the belief if they can “prove” that it’s true and their needs for money and status are satisfied.
Another hard truth I’ve had to learn is that what people believe is more important than “the truth,” and that even distorted beliefs can have enormous staying power. All of the dysfunctional organizations mentioned above have a core of “true believers” in leadership positions who, as long as they perceive themselves as favored children and continue to get a piece of the action, will defend the organization and hold the vision and values as gospel, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Much like the Communists of old, they constantly and publicly proclaim their loyalty and commitment to the organization’s direction and dogma, and root out non-believers who fail to get with the program. Generally they avoid the “show trials” used by the Communists and instead use stealth and secrecy to maneuver non-believers out of the organization. They do this because deep down inside, they know that the foundation on which they’ve built their beliefs is a very fragile thing, so they feel threatened by anyone who questions that foundation.
Truth #2: Organizational success depends more on the strength of the belief system, no matter how distorted that belief system may be. “If we believe it, it must be true” is a very powerful force. As long as an organization possesses a few leaders with the ability to effectively respond to opportunities and threats in the marketplace with crystalline clarity, its chances of bottom line success remain high if those leaders can convince the people that do the work that the direction has a payoff. The process of convincing people of that does not require in any way that leaders tell the truth. “If they believe it, that’s good enough.” Distortion “works” if enough people believe in the distorted information.
The third truth is the most important, because it opens the door to positive change. Sometimes leadership’s sales pitches don’t work and people don’t get with the program. The frustrated response of leadership is to “clean house.” These efforts are rarely successful because the belief system has a life of its own. If you talk to people who have served in the Navy, you’ll find that many are absolutely convinced that there’s such a thing as a “bad ship.” This is a ship that is so cursed and unlucky that even if you replaced all the officers and crew with new ones, the curse would remain in place and it would continue to be a bad ship. They’re actually right! The myth of the bad ship spreads like wildfire through the ranks, so anyone transferred to the ship goes in believing that they’re in for an unlucky experience. It’s a classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The same is true for organizations with a bad reputation in the employment market: if “everyone knows” that an organization is a mess, they’ll either avoid the place entirely or, desperate for a job, join the organization with teeth clenched, prepared for the worst.
Truth #3: Belief systems can become myths and myths have a life of their own. Ignore myths at your peril! The key to successful and healthy organizational change is to identify the myths, expose them as myths and reeducate people to deal with the world as is rather than what they would like it to be.
That last truth is connected to another truth: organizations move away from a bottom line mentality only when its members, especially those in leadership, feel enough pain to motivate them to change their beliefs and habits. When everyone’s making money and feeling flush, it’s easy to ignore the distortions, waste, inauthenticity and absurdity that characterize a dysfunctional organization. Only when an organization experiences failure will its members become willing to face the truth and begin to create an organization that is something more than an entity that exploits and is exploited by its members.
The final truth involves something every organizational development practitioner has to accept: not everyone shares your values! While you may believe in the importance of creating a humane workplace where people collaborate to create a truly meaningful and productive work experience, that belief may not be shared by people grounded in the hard world of profit and loss. This is why an OD practitioner has to assess each consulting opportunity with cold objectivity, and determine whether they’re hiring you to help create positive change or engaging in a window-dressing exercise.
Still, even if you think the odds are a long shot, go for it if there are few slivers of tangible evidence that positive change may be possible. There are few experiences in life as satisfying as helping people face the truth, learn how to deal with it and choose their own directions.