Thursday 26th April, 2007


The system made me do it

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By John Renesch

During a discussion with a banker friend the other day, I was reminded of how much influence our culture can have over us; whether that culture is ethnic, familial, religious, corporate or industry. We were talking about how much pressure people feel working in organisations in our fast-paced modern workplace. I told her that I had another conversation with a real estate company executive who swore to me that the pressure to perform to ever growing objectives was quite explicit, that is, he actually received directives from his boss to work harder and harder.

I suggested that perhaps the pressure was coming from the culture or system in which he was immersed. He seemed quite adamant that this was not the case, almost arguing with me as if I didn’t appreciate the pressures to which he was being subjected.

My banker friend told me a story which I find quite illuminating to this conversation.

As a senior officer in her bank, she received feedback from some of the bank’s staff that her comments at weekly staff meetings had been a bit intimidating. So, as an experiment, she started sitting in the back of the room and refrained from saying anything during the meetings for three straight weeks.

It amazed her when she heard someone refer to what she said in a meeting; words she never uttered. The staffers imagined what my friend might have said had she actually spoken, but she hadn’t spoken a word. These people had been part of the corporate system long enough so that they thought they knew what she would say and anticipated her point-of-view. But it was all fiction, pure imagination.

This is how systems become dysfunctional.

This is how informal cultures are formed, where those seemingly in power attract co-dependent behaviour as “the children” scurry about trying to please mommy or daddy.

Psychologists and other mental health professionals might call this “fusion,” where the co-dependent’s boundaries are confused with the person for whom they are performing. This is one way of avoiding responsibility for one’s own behaviour. The people tell themselves that they are merely doing what is expected of them. Never mind that much of it is imagined.

We see this in alcoholic households, dysfunctional business and religious organisations, government agencies and in the hallowed halls of academe. People read intent and meaning into casual statements or even imagined ones trying to read the minds of their superiors. Then they assign “realness” to their fiction.

And if you query the people who are doing the “scurrying” they will swear they were told to behave in certain ways. They are sure they were explicitly directed to do so, forgetting entirely they anticipated what the system would want from them, and then complied with their own imagined directive. In their minds, fiction was turned into fact.

I’m reminded of that story I included in my book Getting to the Better Future which was discovered on the Internet without any attribution. I call it “the story of the five apes” and goes like this:

Put five apes in a room. Hang a banana from the ceiling and place a ladder underneath the banana. The banana is only reachable by climbing the ladder.

Have it set up so any time an ape starts to climb the ladder, the whole room is sprayed with ice cold water. In a short time, all the apes will learn not to climb the ladder.

Now, take one ape out and replace him with another one Ape No 6. Then disable the sprayer. The new ape will start to climb the ladder and will be attacked unmercifully by the other four apes. He will have no idea why he was attacked. Replace another of the original apes with a new one and the

same thing will happen, with Ape No 6 doing the most hitting.

Continue this pattern until all the original apes have been replaced. Now all of the apes will stay off the ladder, attacking any ape that attempts to, and have absolutely no idea why they are doing it.

This is how company policy and culture is formed.

None of the apes in the story could speak but they inferred the “directive” and stood loyal to it. This is what many people do in the cultures they work in, the industries or companies or trades or churches or families to which they belong. They become obscenely loyal to the system so much so they imagine what the system wants and conform so they are perceived as loyal members. Then they will swear they were ordered to conform or they were intimidated when confronted with the facts of the situation.

A group of soldiers who commit war crimes serves as one extreme example but there are thousands of situations in the workplace where imagined directives dictate how people behave and to what they remain loyal.

So next time you wonder why you are doing something you don’t feel right about, when you’re feeling co-opted, ask yourself: did I imagine that they want me to do this or is it truly an explicit directive?

If you are a boss, learn that people may infer things from what you say, like in the case of my banker friend. Be responsible for the impact you could be having without intending it and remain aware that you could be implying things you do not intend to imply, which makes it easier for people to “fuse” with you or try to imagine how they might please you.

Encourage everyone you work with to be open and authentic, responsible and honest.

When individual authenticity and responsibility become commonplace the dysfunction will diminish and the system will start being the servant of the people within it instead of their master.

John Renesch is a leadership expert, author and distinguished professor at the University of Southern California. He will be in Trinidad for a two day workshop from April 30 on “Sink or Succeed – Leveraging Organisational Performance Through Systems Thinking”. E-mail [email protected] for more information.


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