We get to know the CEO of a medium-sized family concern through a recommendation. The company has been in family hands for generations and has, up until now, traded a niche product into all countries of the world very successfully. Now, though, the profits are falling, because Asian competition is entering the market. The CEO is the first manager not to come from the family. He has a five-year contract and great ambition to compensate for falling margins through increased turnover. He wishes to arrange management training.
The CEO reports that in the last few years repeated workshops and seminars on the subject of management have taken place. Lately, four modules of ‘Leadership Tools’ were given out to everyone, management guidelines were produced and annual appraisals introduced. The management guidelines were displayed all around the premises and the managers declared they were using them but the employees and the union were very dissatisfied with the management culture.
Nothing had really changed. We enquired what he actually meant by ‘change’. We were not clear why something should change, how he would notice that change had taken place and what could, maybe, remain as it is.
Despite all our enquiries, he is unable to articulate his concern clearly. He describes an atmosphere of increasing discomfort and even fear. Everyone simply appeared to be paralysed. In order to remain competitive, the company needed to become slimmer, more agile and more decisive. However, it seemed to be stuck in quicksand. Everyone agreed that something needed to be done urgently but then – nothing happened! We cannot move forward, he said, everyone appears dead, they don’t react to customers, markets, poor trading figures or to instructions or requests. The existence of the organisation was endangered.
Even though we have not really understood what it is all about, we suggest initially doing without the desired management training and instead to examine why all efforts are ‘unfruitful’. We would like to put the desire for change in the background initially and analyse how the organisation manages to produce so much inertia in a quickly changing world.
In the team we decide to lead conversations with the greatest variety of people within the organisation, in order to understand better what is meant by ‘paralysis’ and being ‘dead’, whether this is a meaningful description and how employees and managers experience their working day. We also want to ask what succeeds, what fails and how the company is experienced. We hold conversations with four consultants in order to arrive at the broadest perspectives possible. Two members of our consultancy team are not aware of the CEO and his concerns. In this way we wish to prevent the CEO’s perspective being simply adopted. We use structured interviews with people from all departments and hierarchy levels but also simply allow them to tell us things.
As expected, every participant has a different viewpoint on things. Afterwards, we sit together for a long time and find surprising agreements. The first striking thing is that we have to promise almost all our conversation partners not to reveal what they have said, (always the same wording: “Don’t tell anyone that you have heard it from me!”). All conversations show as well that there is fear of punishment, even though they all confirm that nobody is fired or demoted. Bit by bit we find implicit patterns, which dictate actions.
- See who is guilty but make sure you are not blamed.
- Nobody cares, but the family provides welfare.
- Actually, everything is quite simple, but the world is presented as so complicated.
- One would only have to do one’s work; however, one is not allowed to do that anymore, because there is always something wrong.
- In earlier times, money used to fly in through the window, now there are only a few cents.
- Each person fights for themselves, but actually we are one big family.
- The world will save us, but the world is killing us.
Clearly, people in the organisation are caught in paradoxes, which make it impossible to move at all. ‘You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t‘.
We write a detailed report and illustrate the patterns in large, exaggerated, partly provocative pictures, so that it is not obvious who stated what. We introduce these illustrations to the CEO and the department leaders in a personal meeting. At first there is stony silence, then the CEO says, somewhat relieved: “Yes, this is exactly how things are here!”
He shows courage and displays the pictures openly in the organisation. We want to know whether the pictures only represent our external viewpoint or whether the workforce shares this viewpoint. More than 600 employees take part by sticking a green point on the pictures with which they agree and a red point when they don’t agree. After a week, we discover that there were almost only green points shown. The CEO and his department leaders transfer their workplace to the exhibition room for a week, so they can assimilate everything that emerges from the workers. Everyone is welcome, no matter whether they are from production, administration or management. Agreement and disagreement, emotions and thoughts, ideas and suggestions are all collected. We support by formulating questions, visualising answers and moderating discussions.
After the exhibition nothing was dead or paralysed anymore, the entire organisation was vitalised for a week. So many employees contributed ideas that it was hardly possible to check them all and select the best. This was hard to take for some experienced employees; they complained loudly about activism and chaos, and about the interruption to the work. The CEO was highly satisfied that it suddenly became possible to bring movement into processes. He had the feeling of being able to accomplish something after all.
We don’t know since when the old, traditional rules of the organisation came into being, and how, for what and why they were introduced. These are the things that are called organisational culture. The company has been in the ownership of the family for generations and has Prussian roots. In the family story, it was always clear who had something to say and who did not. They looked after the sick and the aged, took early responsibility for the wellbeing of the workers but, in return, they expected obedience and adaptation. This is still influencing today’s culture. “That is how we do it here”. One does not question things. That which happens, is perceived as normal, natural and God-given. There are hardly any fluctuations, because loyalty and faithfulness are self-understood.
The family defend these values passionately but have brought in a CEO from outside because of the ‘spirit of the times’ and he is supposed to modernise the concern. However, the new CEO now demands something completely different. He wants risk-taking, performance, flexibility, agility, innovation, globalisation and a tolerance of mistakes. However, he, himself, is lacking the ‘instinct‘. Since the organisation has made no explicit decisions as to how far the rules of the past still apply, all the employees are unsettled. They are not sure how long the CEO will even be there and whether his ideas will still apply in future. This prevents them from taking up innovation and unlearning the old. Therefore, people find themselves in a paradoxical situation, which paralyses the whole organisation. The experienced ‘cognitive dissonance’ carries with it tension and endangers a stable, positive self-concept. The job becomes a tightrope walk; the abyss lurks, both to the right and the left. It is only when they name these contradictions publicly and address them that the system comes into movement. The struggle about the ‘right thing’ is still present.
To protect our clients and customers, and to preserve their privacy, no real names are used and all descriptions of organisations and areas of work are avoided. However, the cases are real and have played out as described.