The Synaptic Organization and Duke Ellington

Thinking can be a messy process, and so can running organizations.

Every organization could, in fact,  be viewed as a brain-like reticulum, with each employee serving as a neuron and his or her communications with others serving as synapses. These relationships are key and often determine, as in the brain itself, the performance of the system.

These synaptic relationships are less about the old HR standards such as “employee satisfaction” and more about the discrete building blocks of collective thought: the ability to cohere as a team, a willingness to work hard when needed, trust in the integrity of others, the skills to prioritize, the communication of key issues, etc. You can have workers who are sometimes annoyed with one another or even with their managers, but if the relationship-based “synapses” are working well, then it won’t impede performance. I think that’s one of the main reasons so many experts are skeptical of employee satisfaction as a driver of organizational performance; there’s little compelling evidence of causation running from employee satisfaction (or its sexier, younger cousin, “engagement”) to organizational performance.

Diagram of three synapses. Nerve impulse is indicated by arrows.

What got me thinking about this was, oddly enough, part of the Ken Burn’s documentary Jazz, specifically the part about the workings of Duke Ellington’s big band. For those of you who aren’t music or history buffs, the Duke is arguably the greatest American composer and big band leader of all time. It was fun and refreshing to hear about all the personality conflicts, the smoldering resentments, the missed gigs, and even the unwillingness of members to speak to one other or Ellington himself. Yet, they were communicating when they were playing. The synapses were, in the end, firing the right ways.

I’m not arguing that companies should strive for interpersonal conflicts, only that it can be hard to judge excellence – including managerial excellence – based on such anecdotes alone. If you had pulled aside some of those band members and asked them about their colleagues or even Ellington himself, you’d have gotten an earful. But the final music itself – not to mention the long-term viability of the band – argued otherwise.

So, yes, keep an eye – preferably a statistically valid one – on the organizational climate, but don’t bet the bank on the idea that raising satisfaction levels will boost performance. What you really need are talented people who play beautiful music together, even if there’s sometimes squabbling and disharmony behind the scenes.


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