May 06, 2013Fred KofmanProfessor of Leadership and Coaching, Author of Conscious Business
Be a team player butfocus on your job.
Take risks but don´t fail.
Think out of the box but follow procedure.
Tell me the truth but don´t bring me problems.
Value employees but fire average performers
Help customers but spend less time with them.
Work more hours but mind your home life.
Organizational contradictions can drive you crazy. To maintain your sanity you need to recognize and dissolve them. In this post, I will help you recognize them; in the next one, dissolve them.
The contradictions arise from a denial of logical or material limitations.
For a given technology and a given amount of resources, there is a limit to the number of goods that can be produced or goals that can be attained. In economics, this is called a “production possibilities frontier,” or PPF. Along the PPF it is impossible to produce more of one good without producing less of the other, since resources have to be transferred from the latter to the former.
For example, a person can devote her time to work on her project, or to help a colleague. The time used in one task is not available for the other. Thus, unless one is idle, or using her time inefficiently (as in point “C” in the graph below), there is a trade-off or “opportunity cost.”
When you spend some of your time on your project (X) and the rest of your time helping your colleague (Y), you will reach a certain progress (Xa,Ya) in each project. This is point “A” on the curve. You could spend less time helping your colleague, more time on your project, and reach point “B” (Xb, Yb). Any point on the PPF is a feasible combination of progress for both projects.
The problem is that the instruction, “Be a team player but focus on your job,” seems to require you to attain point D, which is out of the PPF, and therefore not feasible! Your manager seems to say, “Devote all your time to your project,” and at the same time, “Devote all your time to support your colleague.” This is clearly impossible. And that is why crazy-making managers hate clarity.
To get away with this, these managers use abstractions, innuendo, mixed messages and confusion. Like vampires, they loathe the light of reason. Telling them the truth, that is, that you don´t know how to attain their desired outcome with your skills and resources will produce a fit of rage.
Perhaps your manager thinks that you have free time or are working inefficiently (as in point C). Or perhaps he thinks that there is a way to expand the PPF through additional resources or an improvement in technology that would allow you to reach point D. It may be possible to make point D feasible, but you and your manager would have to rationally discuss how to make it so.
Argyris's extensive research found that the way managers claimed to behave is quite different from the way they actually behaved. In real life, managers followed values such as control, manipulation and easing-in corresponding to the unilateral control model .
If your manager’s behavior as a controller contradicts his self-image as a learner he must keep the contradiction hidden. Once exposed, it becomes unsustainable.
When you combine unattainable goals with contradictory managers you get double binds, those emotionally distressing dilemmas that can cause schizophrenia. Argyris found double binds of the following kind in every organization he studied:
The manager gives a contradictory order.
The manager makes the contradiction un-discussable.
The manager makes the un-discussibility un-discussable.
For instance, a supervisor tells a worker that whenever he detects a defect, he must immediately stop the production line and report it. The following day, the supervisor tells the worker that when there is a rush, he should report any defects but shouldn’t stop the line. If there is no clear standard of when “there is a rush,” the worker is trapped: If he stops the line, he will get in trouble; if he doesn’t stop the line, he will also get in trouble. If he tries to get his supervisors to resolve the contradiction, he will also get in trouble. “We are too busy to solve your problems. Deal with it!”
In a double bind not only you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. You are also damned if you tell your boss you are stuck!
Individuals aren’t the only ones with un-discussable contradictions. Business scholars Manfred Kets de Vries and Danny Millerpresent some of the most common corporate ones. “We are good citizens of this community” (while we pollute the town’s lake). “Our workers have autonomy” (while we fire anyone who questions authority). “Quality is paramount” (while we sell defective products). “People are our most important asset” (while 50% of our employees leave every year).
Schi·zor·ga·ni·za·tion: The absence of organization, systematic arrangement, or unity. Condition characterized by withdrawal from reality, illogical patterns of thinking, delusions, and hallucinations, and accompanied in varying degrees by other emotional, behavioral, or intellectual disturbances. A situation that results from the coexistence of disparate or antagonistic qualities, identities, or activities. Organizational behavior motivated by contradictory or conflicting principles.
How to Avoid the Straight Jacket
Inconsistencies and misunderstandings are inevitable. Organizational life is too complex to avoid apparent contradictions. The good news is that inconsistencies are necessary, but not sufficient to create double binds. The condition for craziness is un-discussability.
Consequently, the best strategy to dissolve double binds is to make them discussable. A culture of mutual learning, in which people are open to discussing dilemmas, is the best antidote.
In my next post, I will give you some practical suggestions on how to dissolve double binds. Till then, I hope that understanding their logical structure can keep you sane.
What double binds or contradictions have you experienced in your professional life?
Discussing The Un-discussable – How To Stay Sane At Work
Un-discussable contradictions can drive you nuts, as I explained in my last post.
“Contradiction,” is an ambiguous term. If you and your manager have different definitions, assumptions, or information, what seems impossible to you might seem natural to him.
If your manager asks you to do more but also to go home on time, you might think he is unreasonable. He may feel he is reasonable because he expects your productivity to improve.
In a healthy workplace, any apparent contradiction is discussable. You can tell your manager, “I’m afraid the only way I can do more is to work extra hours.” And he can explain to you, “Oh, that’s not what I meant. I assumed that you could do it in the same time with the new tools.” This may be over-optimistic, but it is not illogical.
In an unhealthy workplace, contradictions are un-discussable. You can’t tell your manager what you think. This puts you in a catch-22. If you speak up, you will be punished for challenging authority. If you don’t speak up and leave on time, you will be punished for not delivering. And if you deliver, you will be punished for working too many hours. (See this terrific New Yorker cartoon, which captures the concept perfectly.)
Your manager may be a unilateral control freak who will attack you if you challenge him. Or he may be a mutual learner who doesn’t realize he’s putting you in a dilemma. Fortunately, the exact same strategy can work for both cases.
In this post, you will see how to approach your manager safely, how to resolve the dilemma if your manager is willing to cooperate, and how to stay sane if he doesn’t. But before you can open your manager’s door, you must open your own door to your employees.
You’re the Boss
You probably see yourself as a learner. How do your employees see you?
“Scared of me? Why would anyone be scared of me?” many managers wonder. “I am always open to listen to them. If they want to know what ‘closed’ means they should talk to my manager!”
I once worked with an executive team that wanted to “encourage prudent risk-taking.” They were conscious leaders, eager to create a culture of openness. They were frustrated because in spite of their efforts, people remained “too risk-averse.”
“Have you asked your people what is stopping them from taking more risks?” I inquired.
“No, we can’t figure it out. We have reassured them many times that it’s Ok to fail. We want them to experiment,” the CEO replied.
“I did not ask if you had figured out why they don’t take more risks,” I clarified, “I asked if you had asked them what is stopping them.”
Regardless of how receptive you think you are, your employees will not ask you to explain, will not challenge you, and will not reveal their constraints to you fully, even if you invite them to do so.
They have surely worked for other less receptive managers before who have set a lower standard of discussability. And some of them may be traumatized by previous work experiences in which they had to report to some control freak who took pride in being “very receptive.”
Just imagine how little they will tell you if you don’t ask.
Here are three questions to demonstrate your commitment to discussability:
Is there anything I could do, or stop doing, to help you?
Are there any issues that you’d like to discuss with me?
How can I be more supportive and encouraging?
After you ask, you must listen carefully. Click here for seven steps to do this.
When was the last time you asked these questions to your employees?
When was the last time you asked these questions to your loved ones?
If it has been more than a week, you have work to do before you address your manager.
Your “D” Boss
D may stand for “dear” or for “dangerous,” but the best way to approach your manager is still the same.
Ask for help so you can be of service. Tell your manager you need his advice on how to resolve a dilemma you are facing as you try to support his goals.
State the dilemma in first person language. For example, “On the one hand, I understand you want me to minimize the chance of failure. On the other hand, I understand you want me to take more risks, which necessarily increase the chances of failure. I am not sure how to assess whether a particular risk is prudent.”
Ask for clarification through definitions and illustrations. For example, “Could you help me define the difference between prudent and imprudent risks? It would be very helpful to me if we can look at some examples of prudent and imprudent risks, both factual and possible.”
Take responsibility and own your limits. Rather than follow the instinct to complain—“That’s impossible!”—Try acknowledgement: “I don’t know how to do that with my current skills and resources.”
Ask for what you needor make a proposal. For example, “It will probably take me a month to learn how to use the new tools. Until then, I can either deliver the same, or if you need more, I can work extra hours. Which would you prefer?”
These five steps maximize your chances of resolving the issue, but there is no guarantee. It takes two to tango.
If your manager does not want to cooperate, you might have to practice some verbal aikido.
Let me know how it goes. And, if all else fails, let us at least take comfort in comedy:
“More than at any time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly”—Woody Allen.
Vivo a Buccinasco, provincia di Milano.
Sono sposato con un’insegnante ed abbiamo quattro figli, oltre ad un cane preso al canile.
Sono un biologo e mi occupo della vendita di fine chemicals, soprattutto ad aziende farmaceutiche, biotecnologiche, diagnostiche, dei vaccini, chimiche, cosmetiche. Se vi serve un fine chemicals in bulk, o avete un progetto custom, chiamatemi!
Credo molto al volontariato: sono stato membro dei Consigli di Istituto di alcune scuole, fondatore del Gruppo Comunale di Protezione Civile e di altre Associazioni.
Mi sono impegnato nel Partito Democratico al momento della sua nascita, iscrivendomi e ricoprendo ruoli nel circolo di Buccinasco. Mi sono dimesso dal direttivo non riconoscendomi integralmente nel programma e nelle alleanze del candidato Gianni Maiorano, pur sostenendolo pubblicamente. Non condividendo le posizioni del PD nazionale nel 2013 non ho rinnovato la tessera, ed ora sono molto deluso per ciò che è diventato il PD.
Da poco mi sono reiscritto all’Università per migliorare le mie conoscenze di diritto, economia, sociologia, storia.
Sostengo la bellezza e la convenienza del campeggio.
Grazie per avermi seguito.
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