Organizational Performance – Leadership – Culture – Resilience

How often have your thoughts and ideas on an issue been rebutted by the words of a superior or colleague: “that’ll never happen here”? And all you were attempting to do was to bring to their attention an issue or situation that you believed warranted more consideration – further thought, only to have it summarily dismissed; and you were left wondering why. In situations like this, what many of us fail to appreciate is that what we consider to be reality may not be the reality of others; our superiors or colleagues may have quite different realities to ours. Unbeknown to us, what we are actually doing in such situations, is bringing to their attention something that does not fit into their mental model or framework of the way things work – their reality. And because it does not fit their reality, they summarily dismiss it as irrelevant, seemingly from our perspective, for no rhyme or reason.

 This is the dilemma that not only confronts risk management and business continuity professionals, but all those who seek to effect change, and especially those who seek to change the culturally driven beliefs of out-of-touch directors, executives or line-managers, whose group-think driven focus is performance – performance -performance; nothing else matters!

To understand why so many executives and managers exhibit this behaviour, I have to take you on a journey into the bowels of an organization. While you are down there, it is my earnest hope that you will gain insight into what really goes on down there, hidden from view, unseen by executives and managers, because only rarely do they venture down there.

Many executives and managers mistakenly believe that they can correctly interpret the quality, compliance, assurance and audit reports they receive, not understanding that to do this, their perception of the reality that confronts their workforce has to be the same as that which actually confronts their workforce. If an organization’s executives and managers do not understand their workforce’s current reality, then their capability for making sense of the information contained in their reports is diminished. Moreover, if they too are under the gun of “more-for-less”, working harder and longer to meet the demands and expectations of their boards, stakeholders and society itself, then the chances are that they will lose touch with the reality that confronts their workforce; what they believe their workforce is doing and what their workforce is actually doing will be two different things. To coin a phrase:

They are in “la- la” land, in a surreal world that does not – no longer exists.

In their blissful and sometimes arrogant oblivion, these same executives and managers can often be heard exhorting their workforces with production oriented euphemisms like “work smarter – not harder”; their underlying and unspoken message being “more-for-less.” What these executives and managers so often  fail to appreciate, because they do not really understand what goes on in the engine room of their organizations, is that their demands are inherently ‘antinomic”; that their demands are potentially dangerous – that they could trigger cascades of decisions and actions with potentially serious consequences.

Antinomic – what is an “antinomic” demand or instruction?

Very simply, it is one that is inherently incongruous and contradictory. Consider, for example, the demands that are being made of most workforces today for better performance and the pressure they are under to not only “work harder“, but to also “work smarter” – whatever that means. The question that emerges out of this reality is:

How does a workforce figure out “smarter” ways of doing things, when it is already working to the limits of its productive (time & resource) capability?

There is no slack in the system to explore new ways of doing things, no time to experiment and prototype, no room for failure or for the uncertainty that is inherent in exploration and the incremental evolving of “smarter” ways of doing things. It’s “head down” and “a… up” – no time for anything else; “you are not paid to think – just to do!”

It’s the ultimate “Catch 22” – “no win” situation.”

Very rarely do managers provide direction to their workforce on how to “work smarter”, principally because they have absolutely no idea how to. They just expect their workforce to somehow work smarter and to deliver “more-for-less.” Moreover, when their workforce magically and mysteriously does produce “more-for-less”, these very same managers pat themselves on the back and tell their colleagues, and in particular their superiors, that they knew there was slack in the system – that all they had to do was to apply more pressure and improvements in performance would follow. What they fail to realize, and indeed don’t want to acknowledge, is that to meet the expectations of their superiors, their workforce has no alternative but to employ short-cuts, non-procedural and often unsafe work practices. Indeed, the levels of performance expected of many workforces today just cannot be achieved by doing everything in the manner espoused in the organization’s policies and procedures – “by-the-book.”

“Short-cuts” are embedded in the work-group cultures of many workforces.

Needless to say, workforces do not tell their managers about the short-cuts and non-procedural work practices they have to employ to meet the demands that are made of them. Moreover, it does not take long before the workforce believes (i.e. it is embedded in their work group culture) that it has no option but to employ such practices if they are to meet the performance expectations of their superiors. When this happens, an organization has entered “Neverland.”

“Neverland” – the land of the “unseen” and the “unheard” – the land of “that’ll never happen here” is a land filled with hidden risk, allegorically the crocodile lurking beneath the surface waiting for the unwary Captain Hook to fall into the sea (J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan).

And if risk is hidden from view and no-one talks about, then how are risk managers and business continuity professionals to do what is expected of them – to uncover and expose unrecognized – “hidden risk” and then seek to mitigate it?

In their book Addicted To Performance Society Demands “More-for-Less”, Dr John Bircham & Dr Heather Connolly describe how “bow-waves” of hidden risk develop in organizations under pressure from down-sizing, cost-cutting, restructuring and demands for “more-for-less”; how non-core processes and activities that should be done (supposed to be done) are not done because the workforce just does not have the time and resource to undertake and complete them. They demonstrate how “pragmatic prioritization” by an organization’s workforce can lead to the emergence of “systemic risk” that is pushed forward into the future in the same way that a bow-wave is pushed forward in front of a moving ship. Not only can the master’s of most ships not see these bow-waves from their bridge, neither can they accurately predict when a fish or mammal (risk) will emerge (manifest)  from them – jump out of the “bow wave” and become visible to those watching – the lookouts.

It’s this failure to acknowledge the changing realities that confront an organization’s workforce as it adapts and changes in response to the demands being made of it, that is the root of “hidden risk” and “that’ll never happen here.”

In our rapidly evolving globalized society, perceptions have to constantly be updated if they are to be current. The problem that we all face is that there little or no time in our schedules for reflection and sense-making activities, and the updating of our mental models and frameworks. It should not surprise us then, that the responses of many in authority are often dismissive, especially when the matter at hand is non-core and requires expenditure (cost) that impacts organizational performance and incentive-based remuneration. We have to understand that mental models and frameworks of executives and managers, that the reality upon which they base their “decision-making” may well not be congruent with the reality that confronts their organization’s workforce.

As risk professionals, we need to understand that the mental models and frameworks of executives and senior managers may also reflect their cultural inheritances, those of their predecessors in the organization and the unspoken expectations of their boards and stakeholders. Furthermore, if  a “cost-imperative”  (i.e. cost is accorded primacy in the decision-making process) is embedded in the culture of an organization, then workforce pragmatism (short cuts, non-procedural and potentially unsafe work practices) and hidden risk should be the expectation of all those charged with managing risk, whether BAU (business as usual) or disruption risk.

The challenge for today’s risk professionals is to influence and maybe even change the mental models and frameworks of their superiors, to enable them to see the new and ever-changing reality that confronts their workforce.  Our job is not to tell our superiors what they know, that which is already embedded in their mental models and frameworks, but to alert them to new risks, such as those hidden in the “bow waves” of the undone.

Regrettably, the “that’ll never happen here” challenge is here to stay; it is not about to go away in the foreseeable future.

Society truly is Addicted To Performance & Keeps On Demanding “More-for-Less”.

Dr John S. Bircham

18th March, 2014

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