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Be Careful with Your Burning Platform

abusive-bossSocial business is fundamentally about changing behaviours of employees, and therefore of organizations.  That kind of change however is intrinsically difficult.  As I mentioned in my post on the innovative personality types, there are often those within any organization that will either hark back to a bygone age, or want to preserve the status quo.  Both groups will often obstruct any change process.

One of the more common ways of prompting change within any organization is with a crisis.  The thinking is that when people see something terrible on the horizon should they maintain their current course, then that will be all the prompt they need to change their ways.  These crises often come from external sources, but I’ve written previously about ways you can manufacture a crisis of sufficient strength to change behaviours.

A recent study should however raise a small note of caution.  It provides a telling reminder that whilst most crises are designed to rally dissenting voices together and create the unity required to invoke collective change, it doesn’t always work out like that.  The research paints a more dystopian Lord of the Flies type environment where crises destroy any trust and bonds between employees, thus removing any hope of successfully emerging from the crisis.

The research was based upon displaced aggression theory, whereby we often take our frustrations out not on the source of our pain, but upon those we have power over.  The researchers wanted to test their hypothesis that during a crisis, managers will take out their own frustrations on their subordinates.

The research used survey data from 12 medium to large sized organizations across a variety of industries.  It emerged from the survey results that employees in lower power positions did feel they received more abuse than their more powerful peers.  What’s more, in organizations that had recently gone through downsizing, the post crisis environment resulted in a break down of harmony completely.  Uncertainty rose, social networks were ruptured, and individuals were increasingly looking out for themselves, all of which created a condition whereby managerial abuses would go un-retaliated against.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the survey also revealed that these beat upon individuals tended to perform badly and were not at all engaged in organizational activities, such as changing for a brighter future.

So, if a crisis is such a valuable change tool, how can we mitigate against the risk of managers using the crisis to ‘kick the dog’ in frustration?  The research suggests a couple of strategies are particularly useful.  Firstly, you raise the self-esteem levels of employees so they’re not regarded as so vulnerable to managers.  With many aspects of a social business involving the empowerment of individuals and giving them responsibility not only for their own affairs but inputting into organizational wide activities, this should be a fairly easy one to accomplish.

They also suggest improving the support networks within the organization to act as a bulwark against exploitation of the vulnerable.  Whether it’s enterprise social networks or the provision of real-time feedback to employees, there are numerous ways a social business can enhance this community feel within an organization.

So I think a crisis can still be a useful mechanism for invoking change, but this research provides a telling reminder that it can also have some rather unintended consequences that we need to be wary of.

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