When a group of people bring an organization into being, it is always to serve some purpose. Organizations have only two ingredients after all: humans and a mission. Has anyone ever formed an organization to accomplish nothing? You could literally just stay home and do that all by yourself. Organizations come into being because people need to team up to get certain things done. And it’s quite beautiful that we all have that capacity and an innate craving for it.
But right from the outset, founding an organization is fraught with dangers. The stated mission or purpose sets the organization on a course that it will follow indefinitely, come what may. According to Simon Sinek, if the purpose of the organization is not properly formulated, there will be trouble. He argues that the purpose, what he calls the why, serves as the cultural compass of the organization. If your organization is well oriented towards its purpose, and you communicate that purpose effectively, you will attract the right customers/partners/employees/volunteers and your organization will flourish.
Once built, organizations, like all biological beings, have an instinct for self-preservation. How long has the Bank of New York Mellon existed? How about the British government? The Catholic Church? You get the picture. If these were people, we’d be hunting them with stakes. Problems arise however when the organization is derailed from its original purpose. Such a digression from purpose can spell death for an organization but, because organizations aren’t mortal like the people that comprise them, they continue to exist and to constantly mutate to keep up with their changing environment. This creates a bit of a living dead situation: what I like to think of as a zombie organization.
This state can come about for numerous reasons but it is almost always characterized by a loss of purpose. Without that overarching cultural compass, the shared beliefs and values that attract customers and employees begin to erode. The standards that uphold internal integrity and decision-making go unarticulated and before long, one of the key ingredients of the organization is missing entirely from the recipe.
Once an organization loses its core purpose, people’s individual motivations rush in and fill the psychological void. Without a common value system to guide behaviour within the organization, individuals revert to their personal guiding principles. People begin to make decisions based on what’s personally profitable rather than using organizational standards. Employees become careerists. They no longer feel loyalty towards the organization or their coworkers. Internal conflicts abound because there is no guiding principle by which to easily resolve them. Management will often perceive this as a people problem thereby creating or exasperating turnover issues.
Even though we tend of to think of corruption as bribery and other financial misbehaviour, this type of corruption is just as real. It refers to the transformation of something into an erroneous or debased version of its true nature. Zombie organizations can also be said to produce more unintended than intended consequences. Sometimes, the corruption gets so bad that no one can even remember anymore what the intended purpose was.
So what can you do if you find yourself in a zombie organization? The easiest thing would be to look the other way. And why shouldn’t you. Unless you’re the one steering the ship, it’s likely above your pay grade. Why should you get yourself into unnecessary grief?
My answer to that is: it’s not unnecessary. It is vital that we understand this. Every member of an organization is responsible for the integrity of the whole. If you don’t speak up or act on your conscience when it nags you, that’s how you become corrupt. If you’re silent long enough, you’ll wake up one day and find yourself complicit. And once you’re complicit you might as well profit. And once you’re profitting you have secrets to hide. You become a perpetrator and a perpetuator of the problem. And of course, who wants that?
These are ideas I’ll be exploring in further depth as time goes on. I’ll talk more about the role of individual responsibility within organizations, the antidote to zombie orgs and my personal experiences navigating zombie-land.
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