The other night when out with a group of acquaintances, namely my wife and her friends, we were all having a really great time until… The “until” is when some asks me what I do. I hate that question. “I’m an industrial organizational psychologist,” I say. “You’re a psychologist”, they respond astoundingly. “Yes”, is all I can muster.
It’s like a bomb went off; everybody stops. Everybody’s body language changes to something more formal and rigid. The conversations become more guarded and subdued. And people ask questions instead of letting me hide behind my normal modus operandi of questioning them. It’s all normal. It’s always the same. And, I loathe it when it happens.
The Organizational Doctor
After a while everyone calms down a bit after they realize that I’m not a “head shrink” and that I work on organizational behavior improvement. You know, boring things like selection processes, expectation setting and deployment, measurement, performance management, change management and all those other things that are just a lot less threatening than assuming that I’m watching them for signs of neurosis or a psychotic dysfunction of some type.
Inevitably, they paint me as an organizational doctor, one who diagnoses, prescribes, and manages a treatment plan. And often I let that definition stand to avoid the long discourse on process consultation, experiential learning and discover, and change management. And toward the end of transformation back to a more normal conversation comes the ever present assumption, “I’ll bet what you do is really is interesting. Like, I’ll bet that every organization is unique in what the problem is”, they will say.
The Usual Suspects
To that assumed position I usually respond by saying that every organization is unique in many ways just as a human is unique in many ways. And, just as important is that humans share much in common with each other just as organization’s do. Even given all the differences you find from one organization to another, the cause of the organization’s problem or dysfunction is the combination of one of the four usual suspects:
• Lack of clear expectations
• Lack of resources
• Lack of competency
• And finally, lack of accountability
Lack of Clear Expectation
One of my wife’s friends jumped right in with an example, “Yea, you are right. My best friend several years ago got this new job in a factory and her supervisor told her what her job was, her coworkers had a different version of what her job was, and her boss’ boss had a third version. My friend tried and tried, and tried to make everybody happy but everyone was mad at her all the time. She was miserable and one day, she’d had enough. She got right up from her chair, packed up her stuff, and left right after her supervisor came over and asked her in a disparaging fashion why she was working on what she was working on. That was right after her boss’ boss just told her to work on that very project she was now being criticized for.”
I just shook my head and acknowledged her story. It seems this is the norm. Lack of clear expectations and its negative impact resonates with a lot of people and most people have a story or two to share about it. It is first of the usual suspects of poor organizational performance.
Lack of Resources
After her story I jumped right in with a story of my own about my son. One Saturday morning I asked my young teenage son to mow the lawn while I went to the grocery store. He was barely up (even though it was 10 am) and not motivated at all it appeared. When I asked him a second time, he grunted, “yea, I’ll get to it”. With that, off I went to buy groceries.
As I came around the corner on my way back home, I hoped I’d see the lawn mowed, and of course it wasn’t. I began to feel that rage that comes when your kid doesn’t do what they committed to do. I ran into the house and slammed the first batch of groceries down on the counter and commented that it sure would have been nice if he had mowed the lawn for me. He just laid on the couch watching Scooby Doo as I bolted out for the next batch of groceries. Again, I came back into the house and slammed the groceries down and continued to grumble and complain about his laziness and my frustration with him.
And as I began to put the groceries away and continued to gripe, he got up off the couch, came over to me, and said, “listen” with his nose maybe a foot from my nose. Oh, he’s asking for it I said to myself. But suddenly he says, “Dad, there is no gas for the lawn mower”. With that, I backed away, looked down, and thought about it for a while and said to my thirteen year old boy, “Sorry son. I didn’t know. I was out of line. I’m sorry.”
“It’s OK Dad”, he said as wandered back to the couch to finish up watching the Scooby mystery. Lack of resources can and often is a real cause of dysfunction especially if you assume the resources are on hand for people to live up to what is expected.
Lack of Competency
Lack of clear expectations and resources are two of the usual suspects for poor organization performance. The third usual suspect is lack of competency. If somebody doesn’t know how to do the job, the job just will not be done right. If your training program for new employees is anything like the new job programs I’ve been through, many don’t come out of those programs trained – they come out the other side of those things battered and bruised.
Lyle had been assigned to train me to operate this machine center area that covered about 1 acre of space and was technically pretty complex. But he really disliked young twenty year olds like me and he had no deep desire to be a trainer. But, he did like the fifty cents more per hour that he would make by training me. His first bit of orientation was something like this, “kid, sit over there on that stool, watch, and don’t ask questions. Got it? Good!”
Well I sat there for a half an hour and then started following him around. He didn’t like that and he told me so. And I told him that I was not going to fail on this job because of him and that I was going learn this thing with or without his help. And so it went for the next 30 days as I learned the job pretty much on my own.
It was the typical way of training there. Management would assign someone to train you. The trainer would say OK for the extra money but wouldn’t train you primarily because they didn’t know how to train anybody on anything. So you had to learn on your own. Training was really observation, trial, error, and pain. You watch. You try. You make a mistake. You get yelled. Watch, try, error, and feel the pain – the traditional American way of training new people.
And here’s the kicker, this training is usually provided by a coworker who was trained exactly like he or she is training you – watch, try, error, and pain. No training curriculum, no training checklist, no training materials, no nothing except extra money per hour for the trainer.
Lack of Accountability
Finally, we were getting to the last of the usual suspects. At this point one of my wife’s friends kicked in her story from when she was a quality auditor for a corporation making cheese. She explained to us that within a cheese factory, it is important to wear personal protection equipment such as eye glasses, gloves, long sleeves, ear protection, etc. to protect yourself against personal injury even if the probability of an injurious event is low. And in a food manufacturing plant, it is also important to ensure policies that keep the food safe are followed and disciplined to consistently.
“One day, while walking through a cheese plant”, she said, “I saw coffee cans sitting near many people that they used to spit chewing tobacco and gum into. This was a big time policy violation and I was shocked that supervisors would tolerate this. And as I continued to wander through the plant and make my way to the plant manager’s office, I was like in shock.”
She explained that when she finally got to the plant manager’s office she told him about how she came across several coffee cans that people used for chewing tobacco. “He looked up from his desk and shook his head in a frustrated fashion,“ she said.
“Your right, I’ve seen them too. I just don’t know what to do about it.”
I looked at him and maybe had a look of surprise on my face. He continued, “I mean, what can I do when the supervisors are doing it too?” At that point I must have looked completely befuddled and sat down in a chair across from him.
“Mike”, I said, “First, supervisors and employees all must follow the same policies. Second, and most importantly, people will behave in the fashion that you tolerate. If you tolerate chewing tobacco, they will do it. If you show no tolerance by suspending them or firing them, the behavior will stop. What shows up is ultimately a function of what you tolerate, Mike!”
“Mike, here’s how it works. Set the expectations. Give them the required resources. Teach them how to do what you expect. And then, hold them accountable regardless of whether they are hourly people, supervisors, managers, or whoever.”
The Sum of the Usual Suspects
It was an interesting night with my wife and her friends. And it was really neat how the “usual suspects” of dysfunctional organizational behavior show up for many of us in our own unique situations. Whether they are with individuals we have in our lives, in the offices or factories we are part of, or in whatever kind of corporate entity we may work for, the usual suspects show up. Yes organizations are unique and yet they are similar in so many ways. I don’t have the data on me at the moment, but I can say this; after over two decades in this business I can tell you organizational dysfunction almost always, about eighty five percent of the time, comes down to “the usual suspects”.
When you find yourself looking for someone to assist you identify and eliminate the “usual suspects” call Misty River Consulting.
Donald A. Kerper is the President and Senior Consultant of Misty River Consulting. He is an Industrial Organizational Psychology practitioner based out of Stratford, WI serving clients across the United States.