Psychology Gone Wild | A New Organisational Tyranny?

Psychology Gone Wild | A New Organisational Tyranny?

I recently saw two things that made me angry. And made me better understand the ills of the modern organisational environment.

The first thing I saw was this chart from Stephen P. Robbins' book, Organizational Behaviour (2005, Prentice Hall).

This provides a classic overview of the contributory disciplines of OB.

It's organised so that the disciplines that contribute to understanding group behaviour and organisational systems are placed together. You can quickly see sociology has 10 sub-disciplines contributing to group behaviour (6) and organisational systems (4).

And so on through social psychology, anthropology and political science. They are arranged top to bottom in relation to their number of contributory sub-disciplines and whether they contribute to both group behaviour and organisational systems.

At the bottom right sits psychology, which is the sole contributory discipline towards understanding the individual. It's an important inclusion because it ensures the system is balanced by a need to understand and respect the health of the individual. But it is necessarily separated from the rest because it doesn't contribute towards the understanding of groups or systems.

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A Story of a Post-Truth Civilization

A Story of a Post-Truth Civilization

Imagine a country. For over fifty years, it was the dominant economic and military force in the world. Its people were prosperous. Its way of living admired. It led the world in science and art. Its culture admired the world over. It produced a wealth of fabulous artists, writers and thinkers. 

It then got involved with a costly overseas war. That lasted for decades. That it couldn't win. That bankrupt it. The faith of its people in the leaders was tested. They had believed that the country was invincible. Its religion mighty and true. Its army undefeatable. 

The result? Its political class split.

One group believed that the country needed to return to traditional roots. That the new ways of thinking had undermined the country's strength. That a return to the old ways would reinvigorate it. The old faith had to re-emerge. Stronger and more vital than before. 

Another group blamed the establishment. The politicians and the aristocracy. They wanted to suspend democracy. Impose an oligarchy of hard-edged money-makers who would return the country to prosperity. Permanently shut up those that thought and acted differently. Making sure they couldn't stay in the country. Or something worse. 

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Creating a Culture of Leadership

Creating a Culture of Leadership

What is leadership? And how can we create a culture of leadership? Two core questions in today's volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) business environment.

I'm going to borrow Hudson's definition of leadership to answer question one. Partly because Crissa Sumner's blog inspired this article. And partly because she's working in Australia (as am I) and Australia needs to start taking this question seriously. But that does not stop it being relevant elsewhere. For Crissa, leaders are:

"driven, with an appetite to learn and grow; courageous and resilient in the face of uncertainty and change; mentally flexible and able to make sense of disparate and conflicting information; decisive in ambiguous circumstances; and capable of connecting with a diverse range of stakeholders and inspiring a shared sense of purpose."

It's a good definition. She argues that the contemporary organisation needs to develop a culture in which all employees can exhibit such qualities.

Read her post. It's excellent from a talent management / I/O Psychology perspective. But it leaves us slightly short from an organisational design one. What exactly is a culture of leadership? And how do we go about creating one?

These are difficult questions.

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Engagement isn't working. Here's why.

Engagement isn't working. Here's why.

We are the most disengaged people in the history of work!

We are disengaged because of perceived poor leadership and bad management. The figures correlate quite well.

  • 86% of employees believe there is a leadership crisis
  • 85% of employees are disengaged
  • 75% of employees say their boss is the worst part of their job


This costs the U.S. economy $860 billion annually. And that's a conservative figure. It might be as much as $1.06 trillion. 

But what's $200 billion between friends? 

Note, these figures only refer to the U.S.A. Globally, the figure is in the trillions. 

You want evidence? 

Things are slowly getting worse. We've become static. Locked into leadership, management and organisational theories and practices that have no place in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. 

It's not really managers' and leaders' faults. They are generally decent people. But they've been trapped into following outdated ideas and theories. And we don't know how to get out of them. As Jeffrey Pfeffer writes,

The enormous resources invested in leadership development have produced few results. Estimates of the amount spent on it range from $14 billion to $50 billion a year in the United States alone.

So, what to do? It's a big task and some difficult truths need to be processed.

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Culture eats strategy for breakfast! Doesn't it?

Culture eats strategy for breakfast! Doesn't it?

Peter Drucker once said, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast". Or maybe it was lunch? Perhaps even dinner?

It is, or course, apocryphal. Ducker never said it. It has been repeatedly misattributed to him for years. The only person we know for sure that wrote it was Mark Fields, of the Ford Motor Company, in 2006. Because he stuck it on his office wall and people saw it there. 

But what does it mean? Was it relevant when Drucker supposedly said it? And is it still relevant now?

Answering these questions is important. To explain why it's important, I'd like to turn to Jeffrey Rothfeder's incisive article on the Volkswagon scandal. In it, while paraphrased slightly, he writes:

For decades, Volkswagen has practiced a management style that imposes rigid goals and punishes middle- and lower-level employees who are unable to keep up with the pace. Executives formulate bold strategic objectives and timelines, with little input from others. Rank-and-file employees, pressured by the expectations placed on them, try to deliver at all costs. Intimidation at every level, which creates a borderline, or sometimes over the borderline, unethical culture.

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HBR says, "You Can't Fix Culture!" Well, duh!

HBR says, "You Can't Fix Culture!" Well, duh!

The cover of HBR's April 2016 issue. Big, bold and bright orange. You Can't Fix Culture! An article explaining how culture emerges from good business practice. It's not something you can impose. Or design. Or change from the top. It just happens. 

This challenges conventional thinking about culture. And about time. But it doesn't go far enough. 

It only looks at how a few CEOs have launched new initiatives that are more strategically purposeful than the standard cultural model. A new culture will then supposedly emerge from the new purposeful direction. It's a shift. But not much of one. It's still about designing culture. Just from a different direction. 

It's not widely known, but there is a bunch of research that predicted what HBR is now saying.  Some of it written a quarter of a century ago. Shows how the culture model is decaying. Illustrates the environmental conditions of a failing culture. And the characters who live in it. 

But those that write for HBR rarely read this type of research. Because it isn't "serious" enough. Isn't manager-centric enough. Is too critical. Too challenging. 

But, hey, HBR has made a strong claim. So let's take this opportunity to talk about this research. On a public forum full of professional people. See if it strikes a chord. Because it's too important not to extend the argument. Make it deeper and richer. Try and put out there. 

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The Sophistication of American Irony

The Sophistication of American Irony

The clichéd critique of Americans is that they “don’t do irony” and are thus somehow lacking in sophistication, intelligence, or both. My last post, The Difference between Irony and Sarcasm, prompted Giles Watson to ask me the following question:

Is there any validity to the arrogant assumption that English have a superior instinct for irony?

Short answer. No! The longer answer actually turns the question on its head and suggests Americans, not the British, are the current kings of all things ironic. Why may, or may not, be a good thing!

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