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The Irrational Organization

by Carl Robinson on

We’ve long made the case that organizations are inherently irrational places. There is a fundamental unpredictability of behavior that occurs whenever two or more people are asked to complete work together. Varying personalities, motivations, and experiences clash in surprising ways, and the more complex the web of relationships, the more likely political drama is to ensue. In calmer times, they are usually harmless, and can range from entertaining to distracting.

However, in today’s turbulent environment, perceptions of irrational organizational behavior are more likely to cast a darker cloud, disrupting objective decision making, and causing otherwise engaged employees to back off, thinking, “My company doesn’t have its act together.” This is particularly likely when leaders feed mixed messages downward. Employees unwittingly play a game called “catch the organization in contradiction,” and are vigilant for signals that seem to conflict. Examples include promises of “a return to normal” while facing new realities; statements reflecting overconfidence or greater certainty than is warranted; inconsistent messaging across leadership. Leaders that send confusing stories during already confusing times do themselves no favors. Perhaps even worse are managers that go “radio silent” for fear of misstepping. Their staff are left attributing all sorts of dire explanations for the leadership vacuum they are experiencing.

These challenging times require more, not less, communication, but of a different kind. At the level of an individual leader, one is well advised to learn to distinguish what is known from what is not, and to build the confidence to speak to both sides. Far greater transparency is required around the thinking and planning that is (or should be) taking place in light of different scenarios. The means or process for decision-making needs to be made explicit, as too the ways in which employees can best contribute. Most importantly, there is a heightened need for leaders to be on the same script as each other. Deviations from this quickly undermine the credibility of everyone. Trust in leadership is hard won, more fragile than realized, and nearly impossible to repair once it has been breached.

Today’s environment may be tempestuous, but not impossible to navigate. All organizations have a certain level of noise inherent in their day-to-day operations. A good leader knows his or her organization well enough to know what noise is routine and what is distracting from productivity or innovation. When the distraction drowns out an organization’s functionality, a leader must take action to resolve this irrationality and put his or her organization back on track.

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