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The flight into deviance


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An organisation can be destroyed by its own culture. There’s a slow route to decline and a swift route to catastrophe. In these circumstances, institutional collusion in interpreting key facts leads to pervasive managerial delinquency.

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The flight into deviance

  1. 1. 72 FOCUS FOCUS 73 The flight into deviance An organisation can be destroyed by its own culture. There’s a slow route to decline and a swift route to catastrophe. In these circumstances, institutional collusion in interpreting key facts Stephen Topple leads to pervasive managerial delinquency.
  2. 2. 74 FOCUS FOCUS 75 The flight into deviance In the privacy of a coaching engagement, the norms of behaviour it wants to see, leaders often share vignettes of executive how the group behaves currently, and dilemmas like the one highlighted on how far apart these two perceptions page 82. Anxiety caused by navigating are. For example, imagine a group uncertainties at pace and scale sets up whose charter says that all carry equal unconscious defensive responses. I call rights to express their views freely, but An organisation can be destroyed by its own culture. There’s the these defences a ‘flight into deviance’. We where there is habitual deference by the slow route to decline, where outmoded assumptions and practices avoid thinking about, talking about and majority to one member’s opinion. In therefore addressing, the results we fear such a context, someone pushing strong render it increasingly uncompetitive – a dinosaur which just the most. And in complex, fast moving, disagreement with that person offends the doesn’t ‘get it’. But there’s also a swift route to catastrophe. In these ‘go-getting’ cultures there are many institutionalised expectation of the group, excuses to avoid reflection or asking the no matter what the group’s espoused circumstances, institutional collusion in interpreting key facts leads awkward questions. Eventually, executives beliefs are. to pervasive managerial delinquency. We’ve seen it in the collapse cross the line from silent discomfort (a of Enron and more recently in the fall of Northern Rock. We’ve regular feature of life at the top) to flight Norms and expectations from realities they should confront more In thinking about managerial deviance, seen tragic consequences in the Challenger space shuttle disaster, openly. our first area of concern is norms and caused more by managerial than engineering failure. expectations. How do they come about You can’t think about deviance without in groups? What are the consequences discussing norms. The most important of disobedience and departure from the cultural norms and expectations are norms? Many organisations seem to unwritten, difficult to articulate, and espouse missions which are disconnected Organisational culture therefore belongs “I tried to present the truth in the often counter-intuitive. Usually people from what matters to their staff and firmly on the risk register for any best possible light. But then the are unaware of them until they bump expressed in sub-Orwellian ‘newspeak’ significant organisation. Directors need light dimmed, as it would take too into them; and much of what provokes that gives them no guidance in their to ask not just whether they are being long to assemble all the information the flight to deviance is similarly day-to-day behaviour. Established and given facts, but whether they are also we needed to have a real sense of unconscious and unspoken. In effect, unspoken norms shape behaviour far more being given the story. Their legitimate what was going on or of what might most organisations have two rule books than the exhortations of leadership, and role is to challenge assumptions which happen. Suddenly this key decision – the formal, explicit strategy, processes these norms can permit some shocking lie under the facts. The over-arching had to be made. There was no way and procedural rules; and the tacit norms behaviour. question should be “what is the true of being certain about anything which govern how people gain approval story of what is happening here, and why and in situations like that you have or suffer disapproval. Understanding The disaster which struck the Challenger is it happening?” In this article, I draw to rely on your instinct and make these norms comes from observation and spacecraft in 1986 is a case in point. on my experience in executive coaching some assumptions. Before I knew it, sub-cultural evaluation of events such A well-researched account by Diane to unearth the main risks and identify I had authorised action which, with as discussions and decision processes, Vaughan of the ‘Challenger Launch the strategies to address them. hindsight, I regret” how others behave in them, and the Decision’ is sub-titled ‘Risky technology, consequences. culture and deviance at NASA’. In it she describes the “gradual accrual of One of the most important pieces of information, action and definitions work for a leadership group is to explore that shaped the work group’s cultural
  3. 3. 76 FOCUS FOCUS 77 construction of risk” which hindsight top of the quarry cliff, drill a hole, place and would take longer than expected to Interviews with senior people in financial would show to be unacceptable. the explosive, light the fuse and shimmy produce the desired business benefits. services reveal the same patterns of back up the rope as fast as possible. The He said the unsayable. Due diligence accumulation of banal, unremarkable Inappropriate behaviour and inexplicable process killed about twenty workers in making the acquisition had not data which on their own signify risk taking don’t spring full grown from a year (as common sense suggests it addressed this risk; it took enquiry and nothing but which, put together, reveal conscious decisions, they grow in small would). Individual workers would say honesty to do that. unacceptable risks. “We all know that steps, in conversations and decisions that there was low risk, as they knew no-one puts in figures that good”, they said where minor vices are unchallenged and what they were doing; and where else And by spelling out the truth in this way about a trader who ran out of road after faulty assumptions unquestioned. We’re would they find work anyway? Even in he got agreement to a dramatic plan. months of reporting impeccable profit too busy, too uncertain, too intimidated an area like health and safety, we too He closed the site and said it would figures, costing his bank millions when at the time. The point here is that few often allow convenience to erode good re-open once it was possible to mine the the losses were discovered. “So why did people set out to be deviant or delinquent, practice step by step. aggregate safely. Applicants for the new we accept them?” but that is where they end up. jobs in the re-opened site had to agree to Recognising that radical change was wear high visibility clothing and helmets Collective amnesia The technical director of a mining necessary, the director instructed his everywhere on site, and re-train in safe An unwritten norm in banking is company once told me about an acute board about the risk of loss of life in mining practices. The episode illustrates collective amnesia about what happens dilemma in tackling attitudes and this key new acquisition. He made his how much leadership courage it takes when trading conditions tighten. Many practices in a newly acquired aggregates colleagues aware of what they would to even notice deviance; how strong an countries, including the UK, have quarry in the Far East. Explosives in have preferred to stay unaware of. The awareness of group norms it takes to enjoyed a low inflation, low interest rate back pockets and drills slung over their prize acquisition was going to take more know how to bring deviance back inside economy and rising house prices for so shoulder, workers would belay off the investment than had been planned, the boundary of acceptability. long that many now working in banking
  4. 4. 78 FOCUS FOCUS 79 (or any part of the risk community for that matter) have no personal experience values ‘people who bring solutions not problems’. Yet, however many tabs of deviate systematically from rules can learn to communicate effectively about One of the of the feelings generated by the sort of credit squeeze experienced in 2007, assumptions we have in our spreadsheet, we can often quantify far less than we things they care about to people they care about. In other words, to spell out most important when Northern Rock found itself over- extended and panic withdrawals began. would hope. These instincts need to be surfaced at least internally: doubts and their unique individuality, and signal how they feel different from others. pieces of work Amnesia or ignorance of history is tacitly uncertainties; the worst fears which can be articulated to no-one; real hopes and Emphasising what feels like uniqueness helps, paradoxically, to clarify what for a leadership encouraged because leaders want staff to feel confident, decisive and certain aspirations; and the consequences of success. is common. It is the commonality, or consensus if you like, which is hard for group is to of their direction. Effectively, whole groups of clever, competitive people Such internal honesty may help managers group chairs to establish, especially if they don’t know how to listen or to draw explore the take positions which they know are unsustainable, betting in ever more to listen more effectively for clues about what is happening in the culture; how out from group members what they are really trying to say. norms of complicated ways with other people’s money. They have lost touch – and have people have or have not understood and accepted the organisation’s strategic Thirdly, leaders can pay more attention behaviour been encouraged to lose touch – with their fear of consequences of their aims, and the extent to which others have, in their minds, pockets of doubt to the assumptions which lurk behind most of what people say. Very often as a it wants to behaviour. and deviant resistance. Understanding what might set off reactions in yourself consultant I hear people use language in a way which makes me wonder: Why did see, how the Avoiding delinquencies So how could we learn to behave in could be handy when you look at the results from this year’s employee opinion they say it that way? What assumption is this person making? At times like these it group behaves a more emotionally intelligent and positive way and avoid being drawn into survey. It might help you think about the implications of areas highlighted amber can be important to check. Think about all those meetings in which everyone currently, and collusively delinquent responses? How can leaders create conditions in which or red, and about what you didn’t ask about. Knowing how you feel about your left the room with a different meaning attributed to the same words. If you have how far apart complexity and human dilemmas are mission and strategic intentions might no method for helping your group to say these two properly thought about, and managed in help you explore with staff more openly what it really means and to challenge the efficient and sustainable ways? the issues which make them say (e.g. in a assumptions it makes, eventually there perceptions are. climate survey) that “in our organisation can be no common ground. There are three main strategies which are we are not clear about our strategy”. effective. And when things beyond your control Next, managers can improve the way change as fast as they do these days, you The first begins with honesty towards they chair groups. Better listening, more might find it’s best to know whether the one’s self. Every plan, however rational self restraint, clearer acknowledgement common ground, on which you thought and quantified, comes with a set of of the views others’ express and an you were all standing, has got any earth feelings, an instinct about it. The accurate synthesis of the collective beneath it. difficulty is that these feelings too often picture held by the group. Here, there appear negative, cautious, nit-picking is much to learn from those who work when spoken aloud in a group which with young offenders. ‘Delinquents’ who