It is your first day at work.
You are wearing your interview suit, slightly nervous. You sign lots of forms, then eventually are shown to your new desk. Lying on top of your computer’s keyboard is a single sheet of paper, with these words written across the top in marker pen.
“Welcome to Work Club! These are the rules.”
Under that, is this…
You’ve worked in a lot of places, and you recognise the things written here, but you are a bit surprised at someone leaving something so cynical for the new kid. It’s a nasty joke you think, slide the paper into your drawer and get on with your job.
A few weeks later you mention to someone the paper with the rules, they blink at you confused. You describe it, and the things written on it. They turn away with a look of disgust and leave quickly.
You think it odd, but get on with your job.
During a project you find some numbers that show it probably won’t deliver what it is supposed to. Your boss is the project sponsor. You have been round the block before so you don’t mention it to anyone else. In the next meeting you have with your boss you mention that you have covered it up, as per the rules. She looks shocked, then tells you she hasn’t heard what you’ve just said. The project is quietly dropped.
Your next performance review is looming.
At a brain-storming session about how to develop a new idea of your bosses, your boss explicitly asks you to think outside the box, blue-sky and think the unthinkable, especially think how it could fail and should not be done anyway. So of course you agree. And tell her how good her idea is, even though you privately think it is a bit flakey.
At your performance review you tell her you followed the rules and agreed with her even though she asked for different opinions that you chose not to give.
You are graded as “unsatisfactory” and are left out of the next few pieces of work that you want to be a part of.
Things aren’t going well. Over the next few weeks you notice you are beginning to be ostracised. People avoid you in corridors, you’re not asked to social events.
You take the piece of paper out of your desk drawer, the one with the rules on. You re-read it carefully, bemused. You’ve done all it says, and yet everything you do turns out wrong. You look at the note written at the bottom of the sheet
“Don’t forget the first rule!”
You are sure you haven’t. You haven’t ever gone round your boss, quite the contrary, you’ve fully involved her, telling her everything, every time you’ve followed the rules you have pointed this out, to her and other people, including her manager.
You Google the rules.
The first link you look at is a page about whistle-blowing, and there it is, halfway down the page. All the rules listed, but not numbered. Which of these is the first rule of Work Club? You’re sure you’ve followed them all.
- You never go around your boss.
- You tell your boss what he wants to hear, even when your boss claims that he wants dissenting views.
- If your boss wants something dropped, you drop it.
- You are sensitive to your boss’s wishes so that you anticipate what he wants; you don’t force him, in other words, to act as a boss.
- Your job is not to report something that your boss does not want reported, but rather to cover it up. You do your job and you keep your mouth shut.
Reading the page to find out more, you gradually realise where they came from. These are real and universal, not particular to your organisation. These are the findings of a sociologist called Robert Jackall who researched how people behaved in large organisations. He researched them like an anthropologist might, looking at how they behaved rather than just how they said they behaved. There is a difference.
These rules are not cynical or sarcastic moaning. They are the findings of an academic study, one that was a book acclaimed as “”Most Outstanding Business and Management Book” of 1988″. It is a book that shows how in a command and control organisation, there is little link between career achievement and actually doing good things. On page 1 it states.
“instead of ability, talent, and dedicated service to an organization, politics, adroit talk, luck, connections, and self-promotion are the real sorters of people into sheep and goats”
You are confused. You are still following the rules,but the more you follow them the worse things get. Despairing, you gradually you start to give up, come in late, don’t answer emails. Soon enough you are told to clear your desk and leave.
It’s your last day. You tuck a cardboard box under your arm with your potted plants in, take sad look around, and with a shrug, place the paper with the rules back onto the keyboard.
Just as you are about to leave, a draft of air blows it off the desk and as it flutters to the ground you see there is writing on the other side of the piece of paper….
The First Rule of Work-Club is you don’t talk about Work Club.
You look at it lying on the grey carpet. Then you pick it up, take your pen out of your pocket and write “P.T.O” on the front of the piece of paper and return it carefully to the keyboard before you leave.
The Systems Thinking Lesson
It’s not enough for people to obey the rules in defensive cultures, that certain things can’t be talked about. It is essential that the fact that things cannot be talked about in itself is something that can’t be talked about. Merely bringing up the subject matter is taboo.
Chris Argyris said this, and said this well. But here is someone also saying it well.
Defensive routines become so ingrained in our social behavior that they become an accepted part of the “way things work around here.” What becomes apparent is that the organization, project, or team isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. No one is walking the talk, and everyone knows it. When this realization dawns on us, our first reaction is usually sadness, disappointment, or a physical sensation of being let down. People talk of
being deflated and dispirited. There is a loss of animation. Animation, by the way, derives from the Latin word animus (m.) or anima (f.), “soul.”
That definition holds true here. There is a loss of soul.
But even that isn’t the whole story. Along with that loss comes a
sense of helplessness. Organizational defensive routines are experienced and reported as being external to anyone’s control or influence. We distance ourselves from any sense of personal responsibility. We don’t realize that we might be as much a part of the problem as the next person.
No one knows how to break the cycle and start afresh. This self-fueling, counterproductive process exists in all organizations and plays out in one-to-one interactions, in groups, and across organizational divisions, time and again, to the detriment of all.
These situations are depressing, to put it mildly. They are also much more common than we’d like to think, in organizations of all sizes, shapes, and geographies
The problem is built into the system of the organisation and can only be broken when the thinking at the top changes, not by getting rid of ‘bad apples’. They’ll only be replaced by other apples ready to go bad. It’s the barrel that is at fault, and the barrel designers who can build a new barrel.
Til then, remember the first rule of work club and…