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Towards Less Dysfunctional Workplaces – New Principles and Strategies

Not long ago PBS broadcasted a documentary on the history of US cancer research and development over the course of 20th century. The producer chose the name ‘the emperor of all maladies’ to emphasize cancer’s uncanny ability to elude human attempts of coming up with an effective cure. Having observed so many different mutations of workplace dysfunctions, I begin to see some important similarities between the biological attributes of cancer and the cultural characteristics of workplace dysfunctions:

  • Healthy origins. All cancer cells originate from healthy cells. All dysfunctional workplaces have a functional past or it would never have existed in the first place
  • Complex past. Despite decades of high profile and high cost investment in research, it remains a mystery even today how healthy genes mutate themselves into cancerous ones. We are very knowledgeable about the common symptoms of dysfunctional workplaces but largely ignorant of their root causes
  • Unpredictable future. One of the toughest challenges facing cancer researchers is cancer cells’ uncanny ability of adapting themselves in response to medical treatments, mutating into new biological entities and thus rendering original therapy useless. Human systems tend to respond in a similar fashion, it’s called unintended consequences of change: a productivity drive ends up inhibiting innovation; an emphasis on quality unintentionally thickens bureaucratic procedures; an effort to improve accountability discourages risk taking, etc.

Faced with such daunting obstacles, most organizations and individuals take only tactical measures in dealing with workplace dysfunctions: discipline employees who clearly violate company policies or breaks the law; build up governing structures to detect and contain the dysfunctions within manageable boundaries; set aside a training budget to help employees improve professional skills; hiring executive coaches when conflicts break out within the senior ranks, etc. All such tactics are necessary and helpful. But they are also limited and do little to improve the long term health of the workplace. In fact, things usually spiral downwards after each failure of tactical maneuvers as deeper layers of dysfunctions (e.g. cynicism and fear) spread and paralyze the organization, just as cancer cells do to their biological hosts.

Can we do better than merely damage control? I believe that we can and have seen plenty of organizations taking on the old challenges in fundamentally new ways.

From Preserving and/or Restoring Healthy Origins to Facilitating Transformative Change and Growth

It’s a losing battle as well as a dangerous fantasy to try to restore the glory of yesterday. The pace of change has been accelerating across all industries since the beginning of the industrial age a few centuries ago and shown no sign of slowing down. The question is not IF but HOW to change and transform ourselves from our simple origins to some more complex forms of organization, similar to the process of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly or a primate becoming a human being. This is opposite to the beliefs of the fundamentalists who fight ‘holy wars’ in order to preserve traditions at all costs. That kind of fundamentalism only exacerbates the problems, not solve them. Sadly, fundamentalism is still wide spread in all human organizations, not only in Washington or Middle East as TV critics are fond of finger pointing, it occurs most commonly as witch hunts in all types of organizations after some mistakes are discovered. It is often the #1 killer of innovation and creativity especially for large organizations.

From Revolutionary to Evolutionary Change and Growth

Under pressure, many business leaders jump from passive resistance to aggressive enforcement of change bureaucratically, regardless their value and suitability. It always backfires. Human growth is an organic phenomenon and requires time, care and practice to seed, germinate and mature in order to bear fruits in the end. Forced harvests end up destroying the young crops before they had a chance of reaching full potential. The good news is that human science, especially in the field of developmental psychology, has made great advances in the last a few decades. It can now offer a great deal of insights to guide the change and growth of individuals and organizations in a humane and productive manner. However, we must also face the fact that the science is still young and few people are well equipped enough to apply it effectively.

From Happy Endings to Continuous Improvements

The new strategy recognizes that human progress or evolution is an unending process and highly inhomogeneous at any even point in time and place, from person to person, organization to organization. On one hand, we need to help everyone find happiness in the process, not hung up in some static however desirable outcome. On the other hand, we also need to recognize that different people or groups could have very different conceptions, experiences and expectations of the same events and outcomes. How to harmonize such inhomogeneity into a coordinated sequence of change process is a key success factor for the new strategy. If not handled properly, the different components could easily clash and turn against change, create chaos instead.

To summarize, in order to reduce organizational dysfunctions permanently and sustainably, we must go beyond conventional management focus on static outcomes to manage the underlying and evolving process of human growth which naturally generates desired results. In the next blog, we will go into more details of implementing such a growth oriented strategy in contemporary business environment.

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