I have explored this theme before in my Daily Thoughts, but I feel compelled to go back! Behavioural issues, whether within the organization or in society, can reach epidemic proportions. In some companies, not following up on decisions, or not implementing a strategy, or, simply, not doing what it has been agreed, can be endemic. Endemic equals culture.
Other epidemics often seen are Over-inclusiveness (the habit of involving significant numbers of people, relevant or not, in everything), and Silo behaviour (people don’t talk to anybody other than the minimal needed within a close circle). There are more. Epidemics of cynicism, of defeatism, of low self-esteem, of sexism or of unethical behaviour can sometimes be clearly visible with little effort. Perhaps as little as a visit to the company.
There are also other epidemics: of optimism, of busy-ness, of extra-miles run, of drive/imagination/innovation. If the behavioural pattern defines the culture, or if it has taken over the culture, it is an epidemic. If it has truly become ‘the culture’, it has become endemic.
The traditional therapy for negative behavioural epidemics has been Training (‘we will teach everybody how to behave’), Compliance programmes (‘the sky will fall if you don’t behave’) or simply Tsunami Communications (‘all managers attend a corporate conference, or 200 workshops cascaded down through the organization’). But these therapies are limited. They all try to fight the issue from within and with rational approaches. The trouble is that behaviours can’t be trained in classrooms, they hardly respond to Compliance threats (‘as long as I can avoid the threat’) and have nothing to do with communicating messages.
As I have written before, an epidemic of nastiness needs a counter-epidemic of kindness. An epidemic of unethical behaviour needs an epidemic of ethical and moral behaviours. An epidemic of sexism needs an epidemic of respect.
We know how to create behavioural epidemics and counter-epidemics. We know the laws that govern the scale up of behaviours. We know what works and what does not. These laws can be applied equally to the workings within the organization as well as to the macro-societal world. Because these laws are counter-intuitive, they still attract less attention than the traditional remedies of training, communicating and putting compliance systems in place.
This is despite the fact that the limitations of the traditional remedies have been well known for many years. No Compliance system has ever created a culture. No Training system can train everybody, or expect an immediate behavioural change. No Communication system has the power to become sustainable; its effects will eventually fade.
Treating behavioural and cultural change with old remedies is the equivalent of treating a severe infection with bloodletting (an old approach of bleeding the patient as a cure). Since the practice of bloodletting has being going for a good 2000 years, certainly well until the 19th Century, I do worry about the folk-medicines that we still apply to organizational life.