We read a great deal about employee engagement
these days. Great talent is supposedly in short supply. Many
organizations are looking to attract and retain the best people,
especially in anticipation of economic challenges that are the new
We scrutinize what constitutes great leadership. Phrases like
“Culture eats strategy for lunch” (or is it breakfast?) are becoming the
new organizational memes. Yet, we still can’t seem to get some basics
of creating healthy organizations right.
One fundamental problem is that most organizations don’t see themselves as dynamic systems. Most strategies and remedies are still based on parts
thinking. While some organizations acknowledge their internal and
external connectedness, they still largely function along segregated
According to Peter Senge, author of the seminal book on organizational systems thinking, The Fifth Discipline, “Organizations
are living phenomena in a very real sense and they were appreciated in
that spirit for a very long time. It was only a couple of hundred years
ago that our view of organizations—and particularly business
organizations—really began to change. When we started to harness the
power of machines in the early years of the industrial era, gradually we
started to see more and more of life as machine-like. It leads us to
see everything, including ourselves, as nothing but an elaborate set of
mechanisms. This way of thinking has developed insidiously over a few
hundred years, to the point where we no longer realize how captive we
are to it.”
Few would disagree that cultural forces are instrumental to shaping
organizational life, but it’s challenging to understand the impact of
culture on daily human experience. After all, organizational culture
is the aggregate of shared thinking, beliefs and values and it is –
dynamic. That dynamic is most powerfully influenced by the vision and
practices of organizational leadership. Because emotional contagion
is real, the thoughts, feelings and actions of organizational leaders
are constantly reinforcing or shifting the dynamics of an organization’s
John Wenger, author of the excellent blog, Quantum Shifting, writes, “We
are so infected by the culture of our organizations that we lose
awareness of it. Ask a fish what they think of the water and they will
say, “What water? In the same way that a fish is unaware of water, we
are largely unaware of the influence the systems in which we live exert
The constant demands organizational life makes on our emotional
psyches are both overt and obscure. In the blizzard of tasks that
string a work day together, many people are simply reacting to events as
they are presented. But within the undercurrents of communication,
culture is influencing feelings that are shaping behavior.
As a result, each organization develops an emotional landscape.
Conveyed by the formal and informal norms of every organization,
department, team and workplace relationship, what is emotionally
acceptable to express and what is taboo is quickly learned.
While organizational structure and processes are always impelling feeling and action, employees are often not aware of how.
Commonly at the root of conflicts, internal and external, are the
underlying forces of these systemic influences. Because we’re not
looking at the macro picture to understand the micro dynamics, we miss
the real drivers of behavioral outcomes.
The past fifteen years have brought a new understanding of the brain
and especially of experience-dependent neuroplasticity. Simply put, we
now know that brains are socially interdependent. They are in a
sense – systems within systems. In fact, the emerging field of
“organizational cognitive neuroscience” (OCN) is the cognitive
neuroscientific study of organizational behavior. OCN lets us start to
understand the relationship between our organizational behavior and our
How Organizational Demands Impact What We Feel
Emotional prohibition and freedom within organizations is determined
by a multiplicity of forces. How individuals will be emotionally
affected by those forces will depend on their needs, beliefs and
values. While some people can tolerate and adjust in restrictive
emotional environments, most will wither and often resist. In most
cases, this is occurring unconsciously. Because much of the emotional
adaptation takes place out of awareness, dysfunction is often the
From an individual, group and organizational perspective, it is
vitally important to understand the forces can impede or encourage
Some organizational forces that inhibit emotional expression:
- Dishonesty. The
singular value that most of our clients identify as being critical to
effective performance is honesty. That’s why the rampant dishonesty of
many workplaces has such a deleterious effect on employee participation
and vital workplace relationships. Nearly every organization has its
“truth” norms and every employee has to crack the code of what is
allowed. Often this occurs unintentionally. Even if senior leadership
intends and professes their allegiance to transparency, an employee’s
relationship with a manager can set the tone that overrides willingness
to honesty share thoughts and feelings. At the macro level the mismatch
between what an organization says and what it does also determines
“safety levels” for self-expression. Sadly, many employees say it is
simply “too risky” to be honest at work.
- Lack of Trust. The
correlate to honesty. Overall institutional trust levels had slipped
in public opinion polls even prior to the 2008 recession. Since then,
they’ve dipped even further. Charles Green, author of the Trusted Advisor (book and blog) points out that “trust
is too vague a term to work with. To do something practical, we need
first to identify the trust realm; are we talking about personal trust,
or business/organizational trust, or social/institutional trust?”
Trust is after all an idea about a set of behaviors that either
reinforce our sense of comfort and safety or alert our brains that the
“risk” is too high. Lack of trust influences what we feel and the
actions we take. It is the cornerstone of decision-making. Low trust
produces feelings of anxiety, apprehension and fear.
- Coercive Power.
The nature of organizational hierarchy and power has been getting
significant attention lately. I’ve written in this blog about the slow death of authoritarian leadership and the need for greater critical thinking
abilities to challenge the imposed status quo. But most institutions
are still dominated by central authority whose very nature (and
“success”) is predicated on coercing behaviors that conform to the will
of its senior leadership. In their fascinating book, “The Starfish and the Spider,”
authors Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom write about the difficulties of
the Spanish Army in defeating the Apache Tribes of Southwest America.
Turns out the Apache had no centralized chief, only what was called a
Nant’an (Geronimo was a Nant’an) a spiritual and cultural leader with no
coercive power. In fact, Geronimo did not, and could not, tell the
tribes to fight. He could only lead by example. If the tribal members
thought it was a good idea, they would follow. The phrase “you should”
doesn’t even exist in the Apache language. Certainly centralized power
has its place in organizing some human activities. But its top-down
approach is being seriously examined in light of global
interconnectedness and instant communication. One question central to
evaluating coercive power arrangements must focus on the effect coercion
has on emotional expression.
- Peer Pressure & Bullyism.
Findings in neuroscience show that the brain is constantly on alert
for what it perceived as threat and reward. While most people
understand that peer pressure has real consequences, most workers don’t
yet comprehend its brain-altering impact. Workplace behaviors that range
from subtle coercion (often couched in humor) to outright bullying can
place people is emotionally defensive positions. Because many people
within the workplace haven’t developed their collaborative and conflict
management skills, communication, especially when differences occur, can
resort to dominant groups (or individuals) imposing their will on
others. Autonomy is not simply a nice idea, but an essential domain of healthy brain functioning.
- Stress. Most
workplaces are pressure cookers. Overwork is epidemic. Sixty hour work
weeks are common, often spoken about with pride and admiration. No
matter what “strategies” people use, lack of rest, movement, diversity
of activity and poor nutrition will result in allostatic load.
The term describes the physiological consequences of chronic exposure to
stress which can cause cumulative strain and damage the body in the
long run. Under these conditions, it’s not uncommon for the brain to be
activated in a low-level fight or flight mode. Unresolved emotional
issues are easy to trigger and re-trigger under these circumstances.
Impatience can trigger frustration which in turn can trigger anger.
Physical and mental exhaustion sets the stage for these emotions to
overwhelm personal performance and interpersonal relations.
- Morals & Ethics.
Our personal beliefs and values play a major role in how we experience
and act in the workplace. The disconnect between organizational
practices, senior leadership and individual performance is often very
high. In a 2010 Maritz poll,
only 11% of American employee strongly agreed that their managers
showed consistency between their words and their actions. Only 7%
thought their senior leaders and co-workers looked out for
their best interests. The poll also found that about 20% of respondents
didn’t believe that their company’s leader was completely honest and
ethical. Of those who responded this way, only 3% said they looked
forward to coming to work. The natural emotional response under these
circumstances is cynicism, mistrust, anxiety, resentment and anger.
An employees’ real “engagement” is not possible without the emotional
resonance that comes from a belief in the integrity of an organization
and its’ leaders. There will always be emotional spillover
from an individual’s personal needs and feelings into organizational
culture. Self-development and greater skill in self-management can go a
long way to helping that stay balanced. However, nothing can influence
individual performance and interpersonal relationships as powerfully as
I’m sure you heard the attractive phrase, “A fish rots from the head down?”
The phrase underscores the importance of leadership, at least from the
perspective of centralized authority. Whether controlling or open,
leaders and the organizational culture they shape set the tone for
emotional expression. And the people will follow.
Maybe it’s time to study Geronimo?
As always, I appreciate your readership, comments, subscriptions, shares, likes and tweets.
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication