Issue 16, Fall 2009
We've all sat in on those meetings. You know, the ones around the conference table when a decision is about to be made. Knowing something of consequence is going to be discussed and acted on, the first thing most of us do is start to take a reading of the others gathered around the table. We note their general moods, attitudes, facial expressions, side conversations, even their body language.
Which way is the group leaning and how much of a risk am I willing to take if I decide to go against the will of the majority?
It's a difficult question, especially when personal standing with one's boss and co-workers is on the line, perhaps even one's job.
It's also a sign of what I call toxic work environment syndrome, which can do great harm to an organization's brand.
On, October 26, 2007, the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency, better known as FEMA, held a press conference — of sorts.
Evidently FEMA was to get information out to the public about the assistance it was providing — as well as to "spin" what the agency believed was the good work it was doing — to help victims of wildfires in Southern California.
The problem with the "press" conference was that, instead of legitimate press people, those posing the questions were FEMA employees — including the agency's deputy director of public affairs and its director of external affairs. They were in the audience querying their own agency's Deputy Administrator with questions The New York Times would later call "decidedly friendly", such as "Are you happy with FEMA's response (to the wildfires) so far?"
Soon after this ruse was discovered, then-Homeland Security chief, Michael Chertoff, said it was the "stupidest" thing he'd ever seen in government.
But the question remains: How did this public agency, whose reputation, or brand, was already in tatters because of its dismal response to Hurricane Katrina just two years prior, expect to get away with this ruse?
Where was the rational, common sense standard bearer sitting at the conference table while this plan was being hatched who should have been frantically waving his or her arms and shouting, "This is not the right thing for us to be doing. Our agency already lacks the public's confidence in our ability to carry out our mission. This will only serve to reinforce that distrust."
A partial answer may lie in what I refer to as the toxic work environment syndrome.
The problem often starts when people make their decisions in sequence rather than all at once, which result in an information cascade.
In his book entitled The Wisdom of Crowds, author James Surowiecki says that "The fundamental problem with an information cascade is that after a certain point it becomes rational for people to stop paying attention to their own information — their private information — and to start looking instead at the actions of others and imitate them."
I would add that this type of negative cascade effect is exacerbated in organizations where senior and mid-level managers would rather be seen as authoritative figures, obeyed and followed, than transformative leaders who, when presented with honest, constructive criticism, take it into serious consideration and possibly alter their mindsets.
An information cascade is similar to groupthink, whereby a group of people manifest conformity in their thoughts and behavior, especially an unthinking acceptance of majority opinions. Groupthink reinforces collective thought, not so much from a base of common sense, or rational thinking, but because of a strong hierarchical pecking order often in combination with strong peer pressure.
The simple fact is that when the ability to speak one's truth to authority is leached from the environment, many organizations either fail in their missions or create emotionally unhealthy workplaces, which result in bad decision making. In toxic environments like these, it doesn't take long to reach a tipping point where negative groupthink and the information cascade replace good, old fashion common sense.
Toxic work environment syndrome is a leadership style issue and requires a change in corporate culture.
Here are some suggestions for getting started:
If all else fails, never underestimate the power of humor to lighten a tense workplace environment.
As always, I look forward to receiving your feedback, questions, success stories and branding challenges. Also, if you are in need of a motivational speaker, trainer, branding consultant/coach, or management consultant who can help you answer the questions: Who are we? What do we do? How do we do it? And should anyone care? I invite you to for more information.
In the meantime, good luck with your branding! — Larry
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