Recently, I met up with someone important who told me to make an appointment with his office to continue the discussion in detail.
So I sent a nice email requesting for one within the following weeks of December. A few days later, I got a call from his office informing me that the appointment slots for 2010 was full. So naturally, I asked if the appointment could be made for 2011. To my surprise, I was told “If you need to make an appointment for 2011, you’ll have to call back in 2011”.
I was, as Alice would say of her adventures in Wonderland, “curiouser and curiouser”. So I probed further, asking if it was because the PA didn’t possess a diary for the new year (a weak excuse, but I had to see where this was going).
Sad to say, the inquiry didn’t go far as I was told “I don’t know. I was just told to tell you to call back next year if you want an appointment for next year”.
Recovering from the senseless episode, it occurred to me that there was a culture of “Just do. Don’t ask” within the organisation. I could easily pin-point the problem to fact that the staffers came from an era where hierarchical structures were the norm and no one, NO ONE, could question the norm. I could have easily blamed the PA for not attending professional business and etiquette courses, but that too, was not the problem.
The problem lay with the leadership.
From observation of that organisation’s dynamics (let’s give the organisation a name – Company JDDA for “Just Do, Don’t Ask”), I realised that the main perpetrator of the Company JDDA culture was the very same person I was seeking an appointment with.
I remember sitting in his office listening to the conversation between him and his PA. To my recollection, his PA had entered the room with the purpose of clarifying the delivery of a message– to which he answered “Just do as you are told” and promptly dismissed her. I could have excused what I had witnessed as an anomaly, but this behaviour proliferated in each staff that it was hard to discount the influence of the behaviour emanated from the leadership, and the power of reinforcing behaviour that subsequently “flowed from the throne room” to the rest of the organisation.
What I just described is not exclusive to Company JDDA. In fact, I would imagine this type of behavior being the norm in many organisations – even in “efficient” economies like Singapore, where the term “OB” marker (acronym for “Out of Bounds”) was coined to erect invisible boundary lines for public discussion.
It wouldn’t even be hard to be believe if I went further to state that it would also be the norm to pay lip service to the concepts of “Autonomy”, “Mastery”, “Purpose” and “Open conversation” – key ingredients to generate good ideas, as my friend Keith De La Rue (http://delarue.net/blog/) twittered recently.
Looking at Company JDDA, I’m not surprised that its growth has stagnated in the recent years, and there are constant bickering between its staff and associates, and within the associates themselves. This is most unfortunate. What’s more, neither leader, staff body or associates in Company JDDO seem to know any better; and if they do, no one wants to rock the boat.
If you identify yourself or your organisation with what I’ve shared (true story!), I’m glad – because acknowledging this blind spot is already a step forward in the right direction. What needs to be done next is to be “gently” proactive in the changes you want to make as there will be a lot of unlearning (of counter-productive behaviour) and re-learning (of productive behaviour) by everyone.