Last time I gave an example of a group meeting where you wanted to vote ‘no.’ But despite this and having promised a colleague Thomas to do so, you voted ‘yes’.
Why did you do it?
Thomas would say you chickened out. The others in the group might assume you saw the strength of their arguments. At the time, you thought it was about fear of repercussions and that the larger group had a point. Anyhow, your ‘no’ vote wouldn’t have made any difference to the outcome.
While all these explanations are possible, I think there are deeper reasons.
I think you were caught up in an organizational undercurrent. Organizational undercurrents are persisting, behavior-shaping systems which operate under the radar of most people but nevertheless have a compelling influence on what and how work gets done. They can force you to do things opposite to your intention (as you did in the previous example) can have even more devastating consequences than the relatively trivial example I used.
What are organizational undercurrents?
There are many undercurrents but in the blog, I’ll deal in detail with five:
- Power. Power is the currency and driver of the company, but its acquisition and maintenance happen largely underground.
- Groupthink. A group tends to seek consensus even if it doesn’t produce the best solution. It was operating in the previous post.
- Lying. A surprising amount of lying, by omission or commission, goes on, some of it required by the company.
- The need for harmony. Workplaces place a huge value on people getting along, even if obvious and critical truths are ignored or glossed over.
- Being yourself at work. Can you be who you are at work or are you who they want you to be? Do you bring your true self to work or does it stay home with the dog?
I’m sure there are more than these five and, as you will see, even these five overlap sometimes.
Is it the people or the undercurrent?
You might be thinking, ‘It’s not undercurrents which, by the way I’ve never seen, it’s my horrible boss.’ It’s not atypical to ascribe workplace issues to personality clashes. And certainly, if you’ve got a psychopath boss, undercurrents, smundercurrents, it’s not gonna matter. But sometimes a boss who looks like a sociopath may simply be responding to undercurrents.
Let’s take your horrible boss. What if her boss’ boss will cut your unit unless production improves but has forbidden her to tell the troops for fear of spooking you? She would be in trouble if she did. She’s caught in an undercurrent where she is required by the company to commit a lie of omission. Would you see her as ruthless if you knew?
The next post will help you assess whether your company has undercurrents.