Monday, March 23, 2015
The Most Powerful Idea in the Universe (Part 5: Getting Personal)
Okay, so I didn’t finish this topic in four posts. I figured I ought to illustrate the theory I’ve presented and back up some of the claims I’ve made with a few real-life examples.
Let me make clear, though, that my intention in sharing these experiences is not to embarrass anyone. The only name I will use is in a positive example. Also, these things happened some time ago, so pretty much everyone involved has either retired or moved on to other endeavors. Let me also make clear that I loved the people I worked with at Church magazines. These were some of the finest people I have ever met. Even the managers who may not appear here in a very positive light were good and decent people, trying their level best to move the Lord’s work forward. But that is the sobering lesson of the organizational imperative. Even those who unwittingly get trapped in the web of its upside-down values can find themselves doing things that damage others. They usually just assume they are acting on behalf of the organization, but do so without understanding the values they have embraced or the ramifications of acting on those values. Such is the reality we deal with in almost every modern organization.
I am also not sharing these experiences to criticize the Church. This whole series of posts has one purpose: to make people aware of the organizational imperative, how pervasive and invasive it is, and how the adoption of its values can damage those who come in contact with them. Implicit in this already lengthy discussion is the idea that it is indeed possible to defeat the organizational imperative, to eliminate it or at least nullify it, but before this can happen, people in positions of authority need to recognize it and understand it.
By way of review, then, the values of the organizational imperative are:
1. Malleability (people can and should be molded into whatever the organization needs them to be)
2. Obedience (compliance with arbitrary institutional authority)
3. Dispensability (treating people like replaceable parts in a machine)
4. Specialization (requiring people to relate in a functional way)
5. Planning (administrators need to be able to control programs and outcomes)
6. Paternalism (the establishment of arbitrary rules and regulations, treating employees like children)
So, what do these values look like up close and personal? Let me illustrate these (and their opposites) with a few experiences from my years at Church headquarters.
A Restructuring at Church Magazines
About halfway through my stretch of employment at Church magazines, we underwent a reorganization that was a classic example of the organizational imperative at work. One Friday afternoon, the magazine staffs were called into a surprise meeting. None of us, managing editors included, had any idea what was coming. Once we were assembled, the middle managers who directed the Curriculum Department turned on a projector and beamed a new organizational chart onto the conference room screen. As we puzzled over it, numerous questions immediately came to mind. The first had to do with two of the managing editors who had just been demoted silently but publicly. We later learned that management had not even exercised the common courtesy to talk with the managing editors beforehand and notify them of their new status. They learned of their own demotions the same time the rest of us did. To this day, I can’t really comprehend what must have been going through their minds. Another managing editor’s name did not even appear on the new chart. We naturally wondered if he had been fired. It turned out he had been magically transformed into a marketing director, again without being notified beforehand of this sudden career change. As for the rest of us, we had been reshuffled like cards in a deck, without, of course, any inkling of what was coming. This whole reorganization had been put together without seeking input from or even informing the managing editors, art directors, or magazine staff members.1
The problems with this reorganization were myriad. Let me mention two. First, as Elder Ballard has pointed out, when significant decisions are mandated or dictated, resistance is likely to result.2 The resistance at Church magazines didn’t take the form of open rebellion, of course, but it boiled under the surface and feelings were very tender. Morale in the department was extremely low. Second, because these managers had not sought information from those who knew the products and processes best, they had concocted a new organizational structure that was inherently unworkable. As we stared at the organizational chart projected onto the conference room screen that fateful Friday afternoon, it dawned on many of us that this structure was totally illogical. It severed lines of communication and redistributed responsibilities in such an ingenious manner as to make the actual work we needed to accomplish much more difficult.
At the end of the meeting, one manager even went so far as to stand in front of us and bear testimony that this plan was inspired, suggesting specifically that if we didn’t like it, we could go take a walk in the park until we felt better about it. Almost immediately, however, as things began to unravel, management started to backtrack, and the new reorganization was revised again and again to try to fix what it had dismantled. We suffered from the effects of that one-directional, nonparticipative management decision for at least two years, and some effects were never addressed. All this could have been prevented, of course, if there had been open, two-way communication from the beginning, if input had been sought from those who best knew the products and processes.
Now, in terms of the values listed above, this one experience serves to illustrate (1) malleability, (2) obedience, (3) dispensability, (5) planning, and (6) paternalism. I suppose I could find number 4 (specialization) in there somewhere, but the others are far more obvious. This was a classic example of individuals with authority operating on the assumption that the organization was more important than the people. Even if the reorganization had made perfect sense, the organizational imperative was evident in the way it was created and presented. And the harm from this organizational maneuver was not insignificant. Lives were damaged. I know for a fact that some individuals were so hurt by this experience that they may never really get over it.
I will give an example below of the exact opposite to illustrate how the organizational imperative can be defused in organizations. First, though, let me finish with the aftermath of this unfortunate reorganization.
“Trust Has to Be Earned”
Not long after the restructuring at Church magazines, the manager who was responsible for the organizational mayhem retired. His successor inherited the unenviable task of trying to clean up the mess. Needless to say, he had a rather hostile and fragile department on his hands. You see, this reorganization was not a singular event. It may have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, but many smaller straws had preceded it. It is hard to describe the culture that comes to exist under the influence of the organizational imperative, but the accumulation of hundreds of much smaller acts creates a very tense atmosphere. Many employees, who were not necessarily surprised by the nature of the reorganization, were nevertheless deeply hurt by the callousness of how it had been sprung on them. The unmistakable message that had been sent was: “You are irresponsible little children and don’t deserve any input.” Paternalism at its purest.
The successor tried to turn things around, and so he scheduled a “training” session, during which we were divided into several small groups to discuss what was not right and how it might be fixed. When the new manager asked each group to report on its discussion, one theme surfaced again and again and again: “We don’t feel trusted.” This, of course, was not an assessment of just the reorganization but also of the general culture that prevailed in the department. The new manager then made an unfortunate mistake. For some inexplicable reason, he got defensive and stated forcefully: “Trust is something that has to be earned.” Guilty until proven innocent. That telling statement defined in every employee’s mind the philosophy this manager espoused, and it damaged his credibility, perhaps irreparably, with that group of employees.
If we consider his statement in the context of our earlier discussion about human nature (part 2 of this series), we must ask which philosophy that statement springs from. If you assume that people are basically good at heart—flawed yes, even fallen, but with good intentions and an innate desire to do right—you don’t make people earn your trust. You give it to them freely. And if you do, most often they respond with their best effort, their ingenuity, and their loyalty. People love to follow—if they find a true leader whose vision they believe in and who trusts them. Trust doesn’t have to be earned. Within reason, people should have to prove to us that they can’t be trusted. Of course we shouldn’t leave hundred-dollar bills lying unattended on our desks, but we should give others the benefit of the doubt in most organizational circumstances.
The statement “Trust is something that has to be earned” was shocking because it was based not on the most common organizational philosophy (that people are merely neutral and can therefore be molded to serve the organization as management sees fit to use them), but on the philosophy that people are evil, or at least incompetent. This philosophy leads inexorably to the conclusion that people will intentionally sabotage the organization or, at best, bungle their duties if left to their own devices.
And this one manager wasn’t unique in this regard. The overarching message we received at Church magazines was that we were incapable of being trusted. This lack of trust percolated to the surface in many ways, but it was most evident in the multiple layers of approvals needed to get anything into print. I counted these for one particular article, and before it was printed I had to get fourteen separate approvals. Not all articles rose to this level, but all did require at least half that many. The unavoidable message this sends to employees is that they are incompetent and have poor judgment. It also tells them that the organization is so important that they cannot be trusted to protect it properly.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not the griping of a disgruntled employee. Like I said, I loved my colleagues. And I really enjoyed my work. But the oppressive nature of the organization was so heavy at times that I started experiencing stress-related health problems. These faded away after I left Church headquarters. But I will never forget the epiphany I had one day a couple of years after the troubling reorganization. I don’t remember what specific organizational hiccup (or epidemic of them) brought me to this point, but as I sat at my desk contemplating life, it suddenly occurred to me that if the celestial kingdom was anything like Church employment, I didn’t want to go there. Now that’s a sobering epiphany, particularly regarding a Church that claims to be the only true church on earth. You would think that such an organization would be able to create an ideal work environment. Unfortunately, that is not the case. It is no secret that the corporate side of the Church has some organizational problems. In President Hinckley’s official biography, for instance, appears this revealing statement: “As thrilling as [Church] growth was, he abhorred bureaucracy and at times felt himself swimming helplessly against a mounting tide.”3 And he was Church President. If he felt helpless at times, just imagine how employees feel who have no authority in the organization.
The Other Side of the Church
Micromanagement and bureaucracy, of course, aren’t limited to just the employment side of the Church. As I have suggested, corporate values tend to filter into the ecclesiastical side as well. For instance, one stake president I have heard about felt an inordinate need to control his flock. Even something as innocuous as an invitation for auxiliary board members to attend a stake board meeting had to be approved by him personally. The stake president also required auxiliary presidents to submit their planned presentations for stake auxiliary training meetings to him for approval. Once, perhaps because he had his fingers in too many pies, he wasn’t able to give one auxiliary president his response until the afternoon of the training meeting, even though she had submitted her materials weeks in advance. As it turned out, he wasn’t satisfied with her planned presentation and asked her to rewrite it, hours before the meeting. This sort of paternalistic management sends the message that the leader doesn’t trust anyone but himself. When this happens, people feel not only a lack of freedom but also a lack of initiative. Their creativity suffers, as do their individual growth, their willingness to seek inspiration, and their loyalty to the organization.
Some may conclude that these two examples are uncommon, but I have heard of enough similar experiences at various times in other Church departments and local units to disbelieve that explanation. Such misadventures are both inevitable and unavoidable when organizational values are in control. People tend to be treated as things to be used and manipulated in the greater organizational mission rather than as the reason the organization exists in the first place. This is a subtle distinction, but it makes all the difference in the world.
Not all was doom and gloom at Church magazines. In fact, one of the finest examples of what can happen when a leader rejects the values of the organizational imperative occurred after the disruptive department reorganization mentioned above. With the editorial staffs shuffled, Don Searle, new assistant managing editor of the Ensign,4 needed to redistribute editorial assignments. He could have just done this unilaterally in a directive manner. Instead, he gathered the entire staff in a conference room with a white board. The staff members’ names were then written on the left side of the board. All the assignments were written on the right side. We then talked about these assignments. Staff members expressed their preferences for the desirable tasks, and we divided them up in an open and cooperative manner. As is true in all work settings, some of the assignments were not very desirable but still had to be tackled. We took turns volunteering for these. In the end, we democratically divided up the responsibilities. Don was definitely in charge, but he didn’t make a single assignment. He made a suggestion or two, but mostly he orchestrated our participation. And we all left happy. All the editors had assignments they very much wanted, and everyone volunteered for at least one of the less desirable tasks.
Two observations about this experience. First, it could have been handled in an authoritarian way. Don might have even taken the weekend and prayed and fasted over these assignments before divvying them up himself without our involvement. But what resulted was much more inspired, and inspiring, than any plan he might have concocted, even with heaven’s help. Indeed, I believe he was inspired in not seeking God’s will in dividing up staff assignments. Many, many things we do in the Church do not need to be dictated by revelation. And that leads to the second observation: this experience was so rare as to be virtually unique in my seven and a half years of Church employment. It was one of the few times where participation trumped the usual top-down management pattern. The feeling of light and peace we enjoyed as we walked out of that conference room with our new assignments was as unmistakable as it was unusual. Cooperation and compromise are inspiring opportunities—because they are not fruits of the organizational imperative.
And this is the whole point of this post: all it takes to deactivate the organizational imperative is for a brave leader to treat individuals as if they are most important. Treat them as if they have intelligence, inspired ideas, good intentions, and unique skills. Trust them. Don’t assume that all inspiration or even revelation has to come from the top down. Even God asked the Brother of Jared to come up with a solution to a sticky problem. It is amazing how many problems simply vanish when leaders understand that people are more important than organizations. Order, which tends to emerge spontaneously in a trusting environment, is far preferable to control, which is always imposed from above and always destroys trust.
1. I feel qualified to give a somewhat objective account of this overall traumatic reorganization because I was one of the few who came out of the restructuring with a better assignment that more closely matched my talents and interests. In spite of this, however, the experience was still difficult, and I was troubled by how it was handled and how it hurt some of my closest friends.
2. “When everyone agrees to a solution, everyone will have ownership of the problem. . . . Talking about the course of action makes all the difference. If it’s mandated or dictated, there will usually be resistance. “Family Councils: A Conversation with Elder and Sister Ballard,” Ensign, June 2003, 16–17, emphasis added. Although Elder Ballard was specifically talking about solving problems within a family, this principle holds true, too, in organizations large and small. Elder Neal A. Maxwell concurred: “Participative leadership seeks to call upon the maximum resources of the group members. When it succeeds, this kind of leadership results in a higher achievement than the individual alone could produce. Participative leadership assumes that everyone has something to give.” Neal A. Maxwell, A More Excellent Way (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1967), 12.
3. Sheri L. Dew, Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 408.
4. Part of the new organizational structure was to place one managing editor over all four magazines, but since he was spread too thin, the assistant managing editors over each magazine acted, basically, as managing editors. The effect was simply to add an extra layer of bureaucracy that impeded everyone's work. After the reorganization, everything was in flux, and there was a good deal of confusion, which makes Don’s performance that much more admirable.