Non-Profit Quarterly recently tweeted a link to a really insightful article they ran in 2005 about the lies organizations tell themselves as a result of group behavior.
The author, Erline Belton, starts out by acknowledging that our basic instinct is for safety and well-being and so we tend to either lie or restrain our comments when confronted with conflict and risk. We often want to maintain a stable environment against our personal better judgment and comfort.
The problem is when people are avoiding conflict, nothing get changed because the problems with the organization are never brought out and discussed. Belton lists different ways these things manifest from groupthink where everyone goes along because they don’t want to rock the boat; imaginary conflict where people imagine consequences and act to avoid them regardless of whether it is based in reality; and hidden agendas where people fail to disclose what they believe is true.
Perhaps the reason this article resonated so strongly with me is my grad school memory of organizational behavior class where we discussed the Abilene Paradox where everyone participates in an activity no individual wanted to do. I have always tried to remain alert for those sort of situations.
Belton goes on to list all the ways everyday lies can infect discussions and weigh down the company. She goes on to list practices that support the truth and build a stable working environment.
Belton provides a particularly potent illustration about how groupthink hampered the work of a non-profit (I broke up paragraph for ease of reading):
In one organization I know, the staff was asked about the biggest lie inhabiting the organization. After much hemming and hawing, one man finally blurted out, “The lie is that we provide good services that the community wants. We don’t and we treat any client who complains like a troublemaker.” He went on to provide examples. Everyone else around the table nodded agreement immediately.
Consider the enormous cost of having kept this silent for years! This was a key organization, serving an isolated immigrant community. Unfortunately the dialogue group did not include the executive director or board members who later did not allow the conversation to progress further. This was seven years ago, and to this day, funders see the organization as “chronically in trouble.”
While it is a rather provocative question, asking about the biggest lie inhabiting your organization seems to be an effective way to cut right to the topics you wish to address. Since it is one of those things that makes you wonder, do I dare ask this, you almost have to in order to prove you aren’t succumbing to the type of thinking you are trying to eliminate.
This reminds me of something Peter Drucker said about decision making:
“A cardinal rule in decision-making is that you don’t make a decision until there is disagreement. If everyone agrees, you can’t tell what the decision is about. Maybe there is no decision to be made at all. So get disagreement.”
I have seen this quote or something similar related to the idea that if there is not disagreement, you probably aren’t getting everyone’s true thoughts on the matter and need to solicit opinions until someone does voice a conflicting view.