In this three part series I will explore what work can really feel like in an organisational world for the overloaded, torn and burdened, how they typically respond and what more positive and optimistic alternatives are available to them.
Have you noticed what can happen to perfectly intelligent and smart people when the going gets tough in their organisations? Old certainties have fallen away, customers and stakeholders are increasingly demanding and the sheer pace of work feels relentless and unforgiving. And as the environment gets heated, business transformation sits uneasily alongside business as usual.
In the face of such conditions it’s easy to experience familiar disempowering situations which we don’t see ourselves as part of, which we respond to unconditionally and where we blame others. How can we avoid these situations? The work of Barry Oshry, the organisational anthropologist, provides useful insights into how we can stay in partnership with colleagues during the tough times.
So imagine an organisation where those at the top, either hierarchically or leading on delegated projects, have overall responsibility for the whole, those at the bottom are responsible for getting the organisations work delivered and those in the middle are responsible for converting strategic policies and plans into operational efficiencies. Then turn up the heat on that organisation and its tops, middles and bottoms and let’s see what happens!
Remember the world of tops when the going gets tough - a world of endless complications, not enough time, too many issues and problems to solve, inputs from competitors, regulators, the government, customers, the community, new technology, staff - many of them conflicting, complex, chronic, new and unpredictable. Remember how responsible you feel, as a top, for everything. And how you respond by separating yourself, sucking up all the responsibility and calling it leadership. Feeling bad, guilty even, when you pass over those new proposed business possibilities because they are just one complication too many. But all those announcements you make – surely they’re helpful? Funny though how you only hear bad news. What is going on out there? What are THEY up to?
Remember the world of bottoms when the going gets tough – a world where you need to protect yourself from THEM and the stuff THEY do to you. Feeling invisible when things happen out of the blue without consultation or prior knowledge. Feeling that THEY are taking care of themselves by sweating you as a resource as much as they can for the least cost. Feeling distinctly vulnerable in your life as the why, where and what of your work is disposed of by others. And yet you have worked so hard over the years just to become a valued employee and secure your future. Maybe if you continue as you are and ignore how vulnerable you feel the danger will, in fact, go away. But, on the other hand, why should you bother? Maybe it’s better just to complain about everything. After all what THEY do is designed to make everything difficult, even impossible! You, and your colleagues, must protect yourselves from the next management trick by sticking together.
And finally, remember the world of middles when the going gets tough - being pulled in different directions by tops and bottoms who both expect, nay demand your total support. tops insisting you get production out of bottoms when you don’t have bottoms’ full co-operation. Both bottoms and tops trying to get you to take their side and in the end you being both dammed if you do and damned if you don’t. It’s a tearing world and you’ve tried everything to equal out how torn you feel. You’ve sided with the tops and were viewed by the bottoms as weak, disloyal and dodgy middle manager material. You’ve sided with the bottoms and were viewed by the tops as weak, disloyal and dodgy middle manager material. You just can’t win! You notice that a middle colleague has attempted to reduce how torn she feels by bureaucratising how people access her and it seems to have worked. Maybe you should try that?
Sound familiar? These unconditioned responses are not inevitable but they are more or less predictable in many organisations in today’s environment. And of course the feelings of disempowerment they engender can be the wellspring of blame and censure that typifies how people refer to, and describe one another: Out of touch tops, useless middles, resistant bottoms etc.
The initial challenge in responding differently and quitting the blame game resides in a recognition that we do have choices in how we approach the scenarios and in how we behave within them. So we can fall into the familiar disempowering realities of organisation life if we want or we can create more powerful realties. We can make the predictable responses to the common conditions of our work or we can bring new leadership to them. We can take the organisational world we get or we can create the organisational world that we want.
So tops who use the complexity in their world as an opportunity to create responsibility in others are shifting away from tops who react to those same conditions by sucking up responsibility to themselves. As are bottoms who shift away from blaming others for their situation to handling, as far as they can, the problems that surround them. And middles who shift to maintaining their independence of thought and action rather than losing themselves within other people’s issues and conflicts.
So different choices are available to us and deciding to act on them to create new realities for yourself and others has great power. But be warned the blessings are mixed and there is always a price to pay.
As Oshry says, “To know the possibility of transformation is to experience the end of innocence”.
Parts 2 and 3 will explore practically and in detail what these choices look like for tops, middles and bottoms on a daily basis as they go about their work including what personal costs they involve.