We read a great deal about employee engagement these days. Great talent is supposedly in short supply. Many organizations are looking to attract and retain the best people, especially in anticipation of economic challenges that are the new normal.
We scrutinize what constitutes great leadership. Phrases like “Culture eats strategy for lunch” (or is it breakfast?) are becoming the new organizational memes. Yet, we still can’t seem to get some basics of creating healthy organizations right.
One fundamental problem is that most organizations don’t see themselves as dynamic systems. Most strategies and remedies are still based on parts thinking. While some organizations acknowledge their internal and external connectedness, they still largely function along segregated lines.
According to Peter Senge, author of the seminal book on organizational systems thinking, The Fifth Discipline, “Organizations are living phenomena in a very real sense and they were appreciated in that spirit for a very long time. It was only a couple of hundred years ago that our view of organizations—and particularly business organizations—really began to change. When we started to harness the power of machines in the early years of the industrial era, gradually we started to see more and more of life as machine-like. It leads us to see everything, including ourselves, as nothing but an elaborate set of mechanisms. This way of thinking has developed insidiously over a few hundred years, to the point where we no longer realize how captive we are to it.”
Few would disagree that cultural forces are instrumental to shaping organizational life, but it’s challenging to understand the impact of culture on daily human experience. After all, organizational culture is the aggregate of shared thinking, beliefs and values and it is – dynamic. That dynamic is most powerfully influenced by the vision and practices of organizational leadership. Because emotional contagion is real, the thoughts, feelings and actions of organizational leaders are constantly reinforcing or shifting the dynamics of an organization’s direction.
John Wenger, author of the excellent blog, Quantum Shifting, writes, “We are so infected by the culture of our organizations that we lose awareness of it. Ask a fish what they think of the water and they will say, “What water? In the same way that a fish is unaware of water, we are largely unaware of the influence the systems in which we live exert upon us.”
The constant demands organizational life makes on our emotional psyches are both overt and obscure. In the blizzard of tasks that string a work day together, many people are simply reacting to events as they are presented. But within the undercurrents of communication, culture is influencing feelings that are shaping behavior.
As a result, each organization develops an emotional landscape. Conveyed by the formal and informal norms of every organization, department, team and workplace relationship, what is emotionally acceptable to express and what is taboo is quickly learned.
While organizational structure and processes are always impelling feeling and action, employees are often not aware of how. Commonly at the root of conflicts, internal and external, are the underlying forces of these systemic influences. Because we’re not looking at the macro picture to understand the micro dynamics, we miss the real drivers of behavioral outcomes.
The past fifteen years have brought a new understanding of the brain and especially of experience-dependent neuroplasticity. Simply put, we now know that brains are socially interdependent. They are in a sense – systems within systems. In fact, the emerging field of “organizational cognitive neuroscience” (OCN) is the cognitive neuroscientific study of organizational behavior. OCN lets us start to understand the relationship between our organizational behavior and our brains.
How Organizational Demands Impact What We Feel
Emotional prohibition and freedom within organizations is determined by a multiplicity of forces. How individuals will be emotionally affected by those forces will depend on their needs, beliefs and values. While some people can tolerate and adjust in restrictive emotional environments, most will wither and often resist. In most cases, this is occurring unconsciously. Because much of the emotional adaptation takes place out of awareness, dysfunction is often the result.
From an individual, group and organizational perspective, it is vitally important to understand the forces can impede or encourage emotional freedom.
Some organizational forces that inhibit emotional expression:
An employees’ real “engagement” is not possible without the emotional resonance that comes from a belief in the integrity of an organization and its’ leaders. There will always be emotional spillover from an individual’s personal needs and feelings into organizational culture. Self-development and greater skill in self-management can go a long way to helping that stay balanced. However, nothing can influence individual performance and interpersonal relationships as powerfully as institutional culture.
I’m sure you heard the attractive phrase, “A fish rots from the head down.” The phrase underscores the importance of leadership, at least from the perspective of centralized authority. Whether controlling or open, leaders and the organizational culture they shape set the tone for emotional expression. And the people will follow.
Maybe it’s time to study Geronimo?
Another great post Louise, yet again I find myself nodding vigorously as I read various passages here. And thanks for linking to my blog. I’m a fervent believer that we need to apply a new set of lenses to our organisations and dispose of the old mechanistic ones. As revolutionary as Newton’s ideas were for their time, we have built on his ideas and moved on to greater understanding. It is time to update the way we actually live our lives and do this more in line with a perspective of the cosmos as an organic and unpredictable thing, not the machine Newton proposed that works like clockwork.
The old mechanistic paradigm has so permeated our lives and created the conditions that allowed those things you list as inhibitors to emotional freedom, largely unaware of how we got here. Engagement doesn’t come about just because we survey and measure it (then hold our heads in despair when we keep finding only 20% of employees actively engaged). It comes, I believe, when we create organisational structures that are organic, fit for human purpose and foster human development and connection.
Thanks for the comments and couldn’t agree more. Realizing though that the picture we paint of organizational change would represent a complete
transformation of the economic systems that fuel the structure. What do you think?
And although I see the power of the structural impact, I also see how we as individuals keep the old processes in place because of our unwillingness to change.
That’s why the idea that the brain is an interpersonal entity has fascinating implication on how these changes will occur. And they will. The rise of decentralization of
power is on, but it will mean individuals will have to learn to manage their own power.
Such an important post, Louise. You and John (in his comment and as quoted) say it so well. People don’t realize just how much this affects them in the workplace as well as what they carry away with them into other parts of their lives, including to their families. We don’t just bring things from our personal lives into our professional interactions, we take emotional baggage home with us, and are even at times, perhaps unknowingly, slowly reshaped by our workplace personas. As you say “individuals will have to learn to manage their own power.” And we need to get fresher fish in leadership roles.
Thanks again for a thoughtful post.
Thanks for your comment. I think once you start learning the facts of neuroscience and couple that with what we know about how the body responds, the toll of
these emotional cauldrons is clear. The question (another one for neuroscience as well as deep introspection) is why do we keep overriding this knowledge with
the same old behavior?
In many areas, this is THE question that research needs to shed more light on. I think its quite amazing that people are so resilient, productive and creative given the forces that work against that in the average organizational structure. But it takes its toll – all we have to do is look at the stats on depression, drug use (over the counter and illegal) divorce and physical illness.
But you’re right – ultimately I think it comes back to individuals learning (re-learning) how to manage their own power differently. And, yes, some “fresher” fish in the leadership pool will help too!
PS one of the most rewarding things about our work is when someone approaches us after a seminar or coaching and tells us that what they have learned has helped them with a wife, partner, child, etc. Emotional contagion works both ways….