The effect of paradigm on performance: Why we should view organisations as tribes, not machines
I think a lot about the good and the bad of organisations - of what makes them wonderful, meaningful, purposeful places for us to spend our time, and of what makes them live up to every awful cliche that we might hear about on the news. One piece of this puzzle is the paradigm that we have about what an organisation actually is, which, I'd posit, hasn't been updated since the Industrial Age.
In the Industrial Age, we began to make and use machines. This enabled tremendous leaps in productivity, which then enabled tremendous leaps in income for those lucky enough to be owning those machines. For those who could not afford to own a machine, or have access to a machine to use in ones' own enterprise, you would, instead, be arranged in a machine-like pattern in a factory, to produce these machines. And, somewhere along the way, we began to see these collections of human beings working in factories as their own type of machine, because we overvalued (then, and still do, now) what was produced, rather than who was producing it.
There's something very intoxicating about the notion of the organisation as a machine. It enables us to:
- say with certainty that this is how something works. Human beings love certainty, because the illusion of knowledge gives us the illusion of control, which makes our ego feel a bit safer. So, we like thinking that we understand how things get done in an organisation, because then we can control it, and change it. But you've all been in organisations where there is a certain person who gets to skip a certain process, or where the relationship between two people means that certain work (not yours) gets prioritised as a result. We have constant examples that organisations are not what they're reduced to in an annual report or in a business process map.
- treat people (which are the component parts of the organisation) as machines, themselves. That is, we dehumanise people, and we do that in multiple ways: by limiting their contribution to their job description (or only valuing that contribution and not, say, something less quantifiable like how much good energy or optimism they bring to the team), by reducing their worth to what they produce rather than acknowledging that their worth is inherent (so, for example, when they quit, we might treat them as if they were already dead to us), by restructuring constantly and saying that redundancy isn't personal (it is to the person who is losing their job, and to their colleagues who have formed bonds with them), and by only investing money in things that will make employees more productive (as opposed to, say, a more whole human being).
- abdicate responsibility for the impact of our decision making. The Milgram Experiment (Google it!) found that 65 percent of experiment participants would deliver a 450-volt electric shock to another experiment participant simply because they were told to do so. When human beings are arranged in hierarchical lines and 'given orders', it turns out that the majority's conscience takes a back seat.
Jung once said, "It all depends on how we looks at things, and not how they are in themselves." So, what if we changed how we looked at organisations? What if we reverted a few Ages back in our history (or came full circle, however you'd like to view it) and changed the dominant paradigm of 'Organisations as Machines' to one that focused on the human beings in them? If we came to see 'Organisations as Tribes', we would likely do the following things differently:
- hire people for passion, values and strengths fit, rather than previous experience, and have a cultural induction for new starters;
- provide more ‘human’ roles in the organisation, like having wise elders (very senior people whose sole job it was to impart wisdom), healers (who could help people with the more existential concerns that humans have), and seers (whose job it was to discern trends and 'predict' the future);
- consider the wellbeing of everyone, equally, and incentivise leaders to maximise engagement (which, paradoxically, maximises productivity); and
- have far more transparent, and downwardly-accountable, leadership.
As a result of making such an adjustment, we would see huge shifts in engagement, in people's experience of connectedness and purpose, and in accountability. What are your thoughts?