Social Atrophy: Know the Signs

When small, an organization is typically vibrant and innovative. Employees are engaged, connected and feel a part of something special – I know, I was part of that once. However, as the organization grows, these attitudes and behaviors can change; the environment becomes more closed, leadership moves out of the day-to-day, work is less visible, connections grow but each becomes a weaker relationship. This is social atrophy.

What’s the risk? Well, if you define social as community, collaboration and sharing then as these diminish, so too does the seeds of innovation which is a necessity in a rapidly changing marketplace.

I attempt to reveal the process in the image above (a revisit of my previous look at Social Atrophy). Notice when the organization is small that being human (sharing, collaboration, camaraderie, error tolerance) is a big part of the day-to-day and hierarchy is really in name only. As the organization grows however so too can the rigidity of hierarchy leading to a decline in humanity. The space between people grows as passion’s void is filled by many unnecessary policies and procedures.

Is this the case and course for every organization? I don’t think so, as each organization is very unique. However we can be more conscious of the decline of social at any level in an organization and head it off so as to not to reach the need of large scale, painful organizational culture change efforts.

Here are a few warning signs to consider:

  • Increasing rate of turn-over
  • Impersonal announcements of employee departures
  • Departments becoming insular
  • New layers of management appearing
  • Communication moves increasingly top down
  • Titles and roles become more important and desirable
  • “That’s not my job” over takes “I’ll do it”
  • Process becomes inflexible
  • Learning is seen as something to complete
  • Knowledge hoarding becomes the norm

Are all of these unavoidable? Are all equal in weight? I think not. For example process can be very important but when it is unquestioned over time it becomes a sacred cow and possibly a drag on business. The same can be said for new level’s of management. If the management philosophy and practice is open and transparent, then simply having more is not inherently a negative. So this list is not exhaustive or without it’s caveats of course but I am curious of what other signs of social atrophy have you seen? Has your organization addressed them or tried headed them off?

3 Points of Entry for Organizational Change

An organization’s culture is created from beliefs. These beliefs are formed through daily behaviors and the responses to these behaviors. And the behaviors are typically driven by the systems embedded in the organization. So when change is desired, there are 3 points of entry to begin the transformation, each with pros and cons.

Systems -> Behaviors -> Beliefs -> Culture

Leadership typically and unfortunately starts from what they perceive is the easiest but is actually the most complex – Employee Beliefs. The most common ways you’ve probably seen are by handing down edicts where employees are told to to do or not do something. Posters and new mission statements often appear in an effort to motivate or inspire along with catchphrases and the like. These commands, words and billboards are routinely dismissed and or mocked as toothless reminders of corporate paternalism. However, this approach isn’t typically done in isolation, it is coupled with another point of entry, behaviors.

Directly addressing employee Behaviors is the next level up effort but again will typically fall short of lasting change. Behavior change is often driven by informational training and/or incentive programs to bring about new attitudes and behaviors or remove unwanted ones. These efforts can work temporary because the training is often unsupported by management and incentives are rarely made permanent. When both evaporate, it’s back to status quo. These approaches are commonly used by leadership because they will see fast but sadly only temporary change. It’s akin to a quick hit which is highly addictive with no lasting impact.

The final entry point is the only one that doesn’t directly target employees and is the path rarely taken because it can shake the landscape. Systems Change is indirect behavior change and it is the element in an organization that has the greatest influence on the previous two. Systems change efforts can be Catalytic Mechanisms because of the far reaching and sometimes unexpected transformation they bring. It is a scary proposition for the status quo but ultimately it is the systems that drive behaviors and behaviors are what create beliefs, and the beliefs form the culture.

Take for example an organization’s intertwined systems of communication and trust. Trust takes on different forms based on communication beliefs. When communication is closed and top-down, Managers direct and employees act. Managers subsequently trust only those that comply and employees trust that if they comply, they will be rewarded. A culture of compliance is born. It’s easy, clean but hardly advances the organization. If however we have open communication where Managers trust employees to be autonomous, do what is necessary and get what they need, then environments where networks thrive and information moves uninhibited are created. This is fertile soil for retention, creativity and innovation but it can be painful for the traditional hierarchy.

Systems, Behaviors, Beliefs. Where does your organization begin change efforts?

Digital Transformation is the big buzz word today related to change efforts. And although this speaks ultimately to technical and technological change it begins with employee behaviors and beliefs. I’m really curious about this and will be exploring more in this space; examining the relationships of systems, behaviors, beliefs and culture. I am seeing the oft overlooked small businesses as possibly the best blueprint for large organizations – those looking to step back and get small to move forward.

The Org Culture Tipping Point

The most interesting thing to me as of late about the culture change puzzle many in OD face is that the answers might be found in the questions not being asked. Many today write about making change happen from understanding what is, yet never seem to ask how the culture got to be in the poisoned position it is.

Simply put, shouldn’t we first try to answer the questions around “How did we get here?”

  • Was the culture ever positive?
  • How do we know it changed?
  • When was it first noticed that the culture change?
  • Were new systems, processes, or institutions were implemented before change was noticed?
  • Was the change an inside job or was there external stimuli (new competition)?

Like my simple graph here tries to explain, there is a point where the agile, innovative, open culture typically found in smaller, growing organizations shifts to one that emphasizes uniformity, complacency, and compliance over humanity. A tipping point is reached where the organization loses the elements that many (larger) organizations now aspire to regain.

OnsetofSocialAtrophy

 

Past is prologue as historians might say, and if we can pinpoint the emergence of the change, doesn’t it then hold true that this knowledge could be used to create targeted measures to reverse course?

If you’re interested, several of us look to ponder the idea of culture emergence vs. culture change on Sept. 19th at 9:00pm ET. Take a look at the posts written by Chris Jones on his blog to see where we’ve been with this and where we are going, then join the conversation on Twitter at #orgdna.

Is Poor Organizational Culture a Symptom of Flawed Systems?

We can say organizations will change as Boomers leave and new technology and new generations enter but what really happens is the “next” marches in and picks up where the “last” left off. The technologies of change, like social tools, become manipulated by the current system to support the system not change it. Additionally, I chuckle about all the Millennial articles/posts on how they want things different, purpose over profit, tech savvy, blah, blah, blah. I’ve worked with plenty of folks in their 20’s and 30’s and like any generation, they enter the organization looking not to disrupt it but to serve it and collect a paycheck – quickly conforming to the system that is. Period.

I’m thinking all this talk of culture change (and I’ve done my share!) is really pointless until there is system change. The systems in play are the problem and shape the behaviors that drive the culture. Systems from recognition and rewards to HR being as a compliance machine, to L&D pumping out course after course. Each are all well entrenched and will remain there because they are the predominant systems of work.

These systems aren’t in play in small companies… yet. Start-ups begin with a passionate all hands on deck collective mentality. The founder eats lunch with her co-workers and loves to share stories of her upbringing until… until something clicks and the unconscious focus on humanity gives way to rigid systems of hierarchy, restrictive policy and a culture of conformity. This is inherited learned-helplessness of leadership. It’s the belief that they need these systems and their unconscious employment is unquestioned. It’s almost as if it’s in the business DNA like a time bomb, preset to detonate as the organization scales. HR is established primarily to protect the firm over finding the right talent. L&D is born because leaders, due to their own years of formal education, see all learning as formal; classrooms, courses, etc. even though people learned in and from their work and relationships. Marketing carves out and begins to chase what works vs. what’s right and customer conversations give way to click counts. It all better fits the system, it’s unquestioned.

We know that social activity forms around an object; a party, a hobby, an idea. Organizational culture is inherently social and similarly forms around an object; a system like hierarchy, processes and structures. Organizational culture is learned maybe much like we humans first learn to speak – through observation and reinforced/rewarded mimicry. However if the mouth isn’t structured correctly or the brain wired right for speech then speech will not happen or will be imperfect. So then if the systems in an organization are flawed, flawed behaviors develop and a flawed culture emerges?

To change our culture then systems must be changed not just behaviors within, as the system will always correct behaviors that deviate and bring them back to the norm (dominant culture). The one big thing that separates human beings from all other animals has been our ability to transcend our instincts, our internal systems. To better ourselves and our culture we regularly question ourselves, we challenge our suppositions, our processes, our internal structures and frankly organizations need to do this more if they are really desiring culture change.

Change the Default (Mind)Settings

I wondered aloud on Twitter last week about the supposed 80% fail rate of ESNs that many publications have reported in recent years. This thought was further spurred on by this CMS Wire article The Smoke and Mirrors of Enterprise Social Networking Metrics. Of course the word “fail” has a connotation that 1. NOBODY is using the platform and/or 2. an expectation (usually of the purse string holding executive) wasn’t met. I tend to think it’s the latter as the tech and maybe even your culture is just fine… your measurement may be wrong.

All enterprise social platforms come with a dashboard of metrics of their own definition. Engagement is typically the golden calf as adoption, measured in things like “likes”, “shares”, “posts”, etc all add up to success of the tool. But is it tool success that drove the desire to have a tool in the first place?? Add in whiz-bang features like badges (eh-hem, stickers) and maybe “sentiment” metrics (which something tells me can’t identify sarcasm) and VIOLA! you have even more to measure. They make it simple. But as we know simple isn’t easy and in this case it isn’t right either. Used in isolation and these metrics are the equivalent of what traditional training measures – butts in seats or “if you attended you must have learned.” A fallacy of course as all it means is one was present and the default metrics for ESN platform are similarly a false prophet.

Frankly, the only measure you can gain from the tool is about the tool. The measures that matter can’t be seen in an ESN dashboard and there are way too many other variables contributing to the outcomes that really matter in the workplace. Social interaction is a key piece however and if a platform is used by some to make them feel a part of something bigger, if it helps a handful of people find innovative solutions, and if it actually helps a team to get work done faster, easier and in the open – well that’s far from a failure.

A few thoughts to help you shift away from the lure of the default settings:

First, an ESN platform certainly helps extend and expand social interaction, but it should never be the measure of “social success”! Second, social is bigger than your business, and it carves it’s own path. If you attempt to channel conversations in the direction of business only, you are in essence sucking the soul out because all conversations in business are the conversations of business. Accept that social is important but it’s not going to be all shop talk and if it were forced to be, the relationships (so critical to organizational health) would disappear… looking much like an ESN failure.

The real failure we hear of is certainly not the technology, it’s also not that your culture isn’t collaborative either. Rather, it’s a failure in expectation and in effectively communicating what social is really about. It’s a failure in not having (or not having the ability to have) the necessary, deeper conversation with leaders that (sorry) aren’t as black and white, and easy as all those default dashboard metrics tout.