This is in part a self-test. I wrote an article on this in 2003, that is 11 years ago (equivalent to many moons in business) and I thought, how much of this will be dated today? Hypothesis: much of it will feel, look and smell old. Let’s test the hypothesis.
I am talking here about the perfect murder, Hitchcock style. Forget the arson attack on corporate headquarters, or the mysterious disappearance of a company into the annals of history (via a merger and acquisition that merged nothing and acquired all, including the logo and a name that ceased to exist on day one of the ‘union’). I’m talking about the subtle poisoning of an organisation that goes unseen by many, and only slightly suspected by some. I’m talking about slow poisoning by professional assassins with a hidden agenda. I’m talking about a thriller script in the ‘husband-poisons-wife-with-small-doses-of- cyanide’ genre, where the poison is administered in an apparently caring or ‘normal’ atmosphere.
In some organisations it’s not that difficult to identify the prime suspects, the toxic managers. You might even know them well; you may even report to one of them. There are two types – the obviously obnoxious, and the caring. One of them is very dangerous. That’s right, it’s the one ‘who cares’, and who poisons under the duty of care. Dramatic? I told you this is corporate Hitchcok.
So here are ten script outlines for an organisational thriller. You can choose the heroes and villains you want – I’m just supplying the outline. You can also choose the extras and the location. I’ll be the producer. If you get back to me with a developed script, we’ll try Hollywood first, and share the profits. Alternatively we may try business schools: the case-study industry is doing well and, quite frankly, anything is better than learning about the Toyota penetration of the US market and the ultimate maximisation of shareholder value in the car industry in Southern California. (Mmm, that is dated….)
Script 1: I just know
Subtitle: I just know that we’ll do x, but go and explore all the options.
In this scenario, a senior manager not only openly relies on teams but declares himself the Great Defender of the Team Spirit. He nurtures and protects his team. He makes a point of personally coaching all the project leaders, although this is received with mixed feelings. He encourages the team to explore many possibilities, to be open-minded and see the big picture. But he ‘just knows what’s going to happen’. Confronted with a problem, he asks for ideas, although he ‘already knows the answer’. This pattern is repeated several times, until the team begins to suspect it’s wasting its time and that the Big Guy is just playing ego. By the time the toxicity is revealed, half the project leaders have left in pursuit of a boss who ‘knows less’, and the other half are either bored or enjoying their stock options.
Script 2: Let them fail
Subtitle: Wrong path but they need to see it for themselves.
This script is acted out in paternalistic and patronising organisations where senior management has chronically mistaken a business organisation for a primary school. Toxicity is very subtle because it’s acted out in a so-called learning environment where people ‘learn by their mistakes’ and are ’empowered to take risks’. Suspicion is raised half way through the script when some people who fail are fired. The piece ends with people having a good laugh as the CEO speaks highly about knowledge management while collecting the Learning Organisation, company of the Year Award.
More plots continue tomorrow.