Friday, September 27, 2013

Corporate reductionism of human eccentricity is costing us too much

When the suspended worker asked his boss, "Why am I not returning to work here?" the answer came back like a lightning bolt, "Chemistry!"
When someone like Brian Burke sits in the executive suite in the Saddledome in Calgary, and asks himself, "Why am I not still in charge of hockey operations with the Toronto Maple Leafs?" the answer beating a drum inside his head could well be, "Chemistry!"
The president of Bell Canada Enterprises, now one of the ownership team at MLSE, along with CTV and Rogers, seemed to think Burke did not "fit the brand"...as the pundits put it.
What does it mean "not to fit the brand"?
Does it mean that, in a culture of political correctness and buttoned down collars and tongues and public disclosure, including the disclosure of human emotions within the corporate swamp, Burke's free-flowing, stream-of consciousness interactivity with both the public and the media is thrown under the bus, in spite of his demonstrated ability, energy, creativity and intellectual discipline?
In a word, Yes!
People are no longer sought out for their talents, and their strengths and even their record, without also a much higher emphasis being placed on the "fit" of the personality to the organizational culture.
And one executive's interpretation of the appropriate "fit" could well be the precise opposite of the next's interpretation, since the ego of the CEO includes the prerogative of imprinting his "signature" on the organization.
A few years back, research reports in the U.S. found that up to 90% of all new executives failed in the first ninety days of taking a new post. And the reason, not being able to fit into the corporate culture, was addressed by assigning mentors to the new "recruits" so that they could be given informal and formal training in how to do things around here.
This notion of "chemistry" is not only paramount in corporate culture, it also applies to civil servant culture, college and university culture, and even ecclesial culture...Imagine a professor not receiving tenure, notwithstanding his brilliant academic background because he did not fit the institution's picture of itself in his demeanour. Imagine a clergy who froths at the mouth with both curiosity and political rebelliousness, both of which s/he considers necessary to any leadership role in the church, being turfed because "s/he was not spiritual enough" to suit the corporate suit, or the female mandarin who guards the operating and the foundation accounts of the church.
Imagine the new marketing guy, eager to demonstrate his creativity, and his capacity to build the organization forward hitting a wall in his first team meeting when he hears, "That will never fly around here; we just don't do things in such a loud manner, we prefer a more subtle, and we believe sophisticated approach, which we believe has more integrity in which our customers tell others about us and we grow our business through such authentic story-telling. What's more, it saves our operating budget thousands of dollars we would otherwise risk on marketing and advertising."
That really sounds like a time warp has overtaken the decision-makers in that organization...it may have worked well for decades, perhaps even centuries, while today, there is so much aggressive competition from other organizations, be they municipalities, or professional candidates for positions in law firms, or medical graduates vying for privileges in hospitals.
"Chemistry" is a public relations word for "politics" and for "humility" and for grasping one's place in the timeline of the organization as a "newcomer"...and the power resides in the seniority-holders of the organization even if there has been little or no innovation, experimentation, challenging leadership or 'white water' inside the culture for decades, if not centuries.
Sadly, especially in both the education and religion establishments, signs of permanence and signs of seniority rule with an iron fist, as they do in most civil servant cultures.
Just when and where the clients need to see new ventures, new ways of doing things and iconoclasts bursting through the mildew and the dust balls and the cobwebs of institutional lethargy, even somnambulance and lethargy, we find the greatest resistance to anything that smacks of "pretentious over-stepping" and pushing the envelope, by challenging the authority structure.
While it is refreshing to hear Pope Francis breath some new and fresh tone into the Roman Catholic institution, one has to wonder just how much rope the hierarchy will allow, before they rein him back into the "culture"...especially ironic given the New Testament legacy of a man who overturned so much of what he found was conventional and contemporary culture, so much overturning did he bring that he was found not fitting because of "chemistry"...He did not fit into the established thinking and established perceptions and the established culture.
John Steinbeck reminds us that man's highest achievement is as a rebel...and if one looks at history, it is through the unconventional, eccentric, questioning and even challenging voices of those who did not "fit into" the established order of things who paved the way forward for many legitimate and long-overdue human achievements.
Sadly, we have produced a western culture whose addiction to convention and conformity is so deep that it compromises our economic future, not to mention our individual liberty and human need for both change and innovation. Oh, there are a handful of Steve Jobs at the centre of the tech-revolution, but the vast majority of human beings are still pulling water from the well in buckets, (if they have a well from which to draw it) and are wearing the same grey suits that drove Willy Loman insane in Arthur Miller's Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, Death of a Salesman, in the 1950's.
We are still sucking in garbage bags full of toxic fumes, as conventionally we refuse to acknowledge the reality and risks of global warming and climate change, and we are still marching toward a culture so balkanized between have's and have-not's that those who study the steep decline as well as its sound-breaking speed, theorize about the need for a new social compact or contract.
International agencies need to be developed to challenge a state's isolation from the world community, while national standards of, for example, minimum wage laws must be challenged to better identify and reflect different costs of living in various towns and cities. What a WalMart worker needs to live in San Francisco has to be higher than a WalMart worker needs to live in Huntsville, Alabama, as starting employees.
Learning about the real import of chemistry, given the potential contribution to an organization of one who asks a lot of questions, and who challenges much of the conventional "modus operandi" would point enlightened leaders in the direction of seeking them out, offering them contracts commensurate with their unconventionality and their creativity and their courage to innovate, not merely their willingness to march to the beat of the drum of organizational culture, as established a century ago.
Whenever I hear the excuse "chemistry" about why someone is dismissed, I know that the leadership of the organization is too frightened to work with that person to evoke the best that person has to offer. I once listened to an advisor's answer to a CEO's question, "Do you think I should hire person X?"
The answer ran something like this: "There is the potential for both great risk and great reward in hiring person X!"
And several years later, I wonder if that statement could not be made, if truth be told, about all of us...
we are all potentially carriers and generators of high rewards and high risks, and those who consider such a candidate too risky are overlooking a potentially valuable contributor, probably in favour of one "more easily managed"....
Chemistry is just another word for "high maintenance" when used as an excuse to dismiss someone.
And when dealing with human beings, all forms of reduction, including the reductions to simplistic expectations of someone skating up and down a wing on a hockey team, those reductions for which corporate culture is famous for having implemented with impunity, are an insult to us all...and the sooner our complexity and our rebelliousness and our eccentricity and our unique chemistry are seen as having great value, we will significantly shift our culture from fear to fresh hope and insight.

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