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?

Strengthening Our Social Supporting Muscles

I hurt my shoulder swimming (yes, you can get hurt swimming). Apparently I have a labrum abrasions (see picture) causing me to have painful movement, too painful to swim. Surgery on my shoulder is an option but may be unnecessary. So physical therapy has been my course of action and as I’ve learned it’s not my shoulder joint that needs to be fixed, rather it’s the small, little known muscle system around the shoulder that were too weak all along. This weakness caused me to alter my swim stroke and thus damage my shoulder. So of course this got me to thinking…

Approaches to performance improvement efforts are similarly surgical in nature. We directly attack the problem itself. But when the performance issue is say less tangible, like improving organization communication (collaboration, cooperation, openness, or transparency), we initially target individual or group behaviors and begin working on the people directly.

Typically it goes like this:

– We need to be more agile, adaptable, innovative…

– We need to collaborate more, open up and be more transparent

– Let’s buy Yammer… or Slack… or Jive. Or

– Let’s “create” a CoP so people will talk and share and innovate more… or

– Let’s revisit our knowledge management approach… or

– Let’s have the c-suite blog more… or

This approach is a mistake. At worst it is an expensive, morale killing failure and at best it is so slow it stumbles on for months or years with weak support.

Communication, collaboration, cooperation, etc. in the organization, like my shoulder, are really supported by little, unseen systems:

– Who gets to talk to whom and when?
– What gets rewarded and recognized?
– Is management leadership or overseer?

Just think, if I have surgery on my shoulder but return to swimming with the same underdeveloped system (muscles) that supports the movement (shoulder), it remains weak and I will eventually fail again.

Similarly, if we just implement a new technology or target individual/group behavior change and the system that supports the new behavior remains unchanged (weak) the new behavior too will eventually fail again.

Address the system which will alter the behavior and change the culture.