A few days back, I saw on Netflix a recent film about North Korea. This was made by a western journalist, who was invited for an ‘official’ visit. He traveled on a ‘planned’ tour, always accompanied by government officials.The film disproves some of the ridiculous stories about the country, but despite the ‘sanitization’ seemed to reveal the ‘brainwashing’ of the citizens, the frugal lifestyle, rationing of necessities and indoctrination against the western countries, especially USA.
‘Mind control’ or brain washing is a global phenomenon and done to various degrees by governments, religious organizations, large industries et al.
Is this a malaise prevailing in business organizations also?
Building strong Organizational culture is a powerful way to align employees, vendors and clients to the core values and ‘acceptable business processes’ of a company. This ensures consistency in the internal/external engagements and proper management of expectations.
But can a very strong culture take the organization in the wrong direction?
That’s an interesting question, and could be explored by asking if some of the following (and similar examples) happen in an organization:
- Leaders and their activities are described in glowing terms, implying that they are ‘super performers’, doing a great job.
- You know about the downside of critical decisions from the public news rather than from internal communication. For example, your company takes over another organization, and you hear damning news on TV, while the CEO extolls the decision in his internal communication.
- A leader who was supposedly a ‘great performer’ is suddenly asked to quit.
- Long timers talk a very different language from the new employees, irrespective of age.
- Colleagues are careful about speaking out their feelings in meetings. There is a general restraint and awe when senior leaders are present.
- You look forward to meeting a top leader (highly spoken of) but are quite disappointed when you actually engage with him.
- You hear corporate stories of how whistleblowers/radical thinkers were ostensibly praised/rewarded but eventually sidelined in their careers.
Everyone likes to work for smart leaders. We put in extra effort with pride when we know that leaders are doing a great job and we are in safe hands.
For many organizations, managing this perception is critical, as leadership may not be ‘scoring goals’ consistently.
Also, it’s easier to lead an organization when people down the line are following orders and staying within their defined ‘circle of influence’. Despite all talk of promoting innovative thinking and decision making on the ground, it’s not easy to act on feedback and manage inclusion of ideas. Especially if the team is widely dispersed across the globe, as is for many large organizations.
This is also linked to the public image of the organization, maintaining the perception of a strong and consistent organization, driven by strong values.
So ‘Training and feedback’ for the sake of cultural alignment, is directed at ensuring that the employee thinks and acts within ‘accepted boundaries’. Many organizations look for ‘cultural fit’ before hiring a person or prefer young talent who are easier to mold as desired, which may further aggravate an environment of indoctrination.
Of course, cultural alignment is important for an employee to add value and grow in the organization. But when we cross the ‘invisible line’ into dogma, group think, ‘toeing the line’ and compliance then the organization starts decaying.
Employees start accepting decisions, talk the same language, restrict conflict and move into the organizational ‘comfort zone’. Consequently, there is very little ‘soul searching’ and the collective wisdom driving the organization shrinks to a small set of leaders, who are far away from the ground reality. Innovative ideas which are ‘ground up’ are ignored and whistleblowers are stifled, impacting opportunities for powerful change.
Most of this happens imperceptibly, and in the din of everyday pressure, even the ‘perpetrators’ do not realize they are pushing the company down an abyss.
Why does this happen? All humans have an intrinsic need for external approval, which gives us a sense of peace and security. On entering a new corporate environment, we learn to mirror others behavior and align ourselves to existing groups for this emotional comfort.
Some of us are not as dependent on external approval, and they are the ‘outliers’, who stand alone, asking ‘difficult questions’ or ‘see things differently’.
But for most of us, we need to feel secure and rewarded to behave differently, question freely or openly express different points of view. While line leadership could play a critical role in minimizing cultural indoctrination, the Learning & Development function (with support of HR) could facilitate the process of training employees to become aware and resist the same. Each employee can take the responsibility to ask oneself if (for example)
- They are accepting peer behavior or acting in a way which is not ‘true’ to oneself.
- They are idolizing leaders, attributing large successes to individuals.
- Accepting decisions (in a group or handed down by leaders) which are not feeling ‘right’.
- Apparently moving in the wrong direction, but no one seems to be speaking out openly.
- Not comfortable sharing concerns or feelings with supervisors or peers.
In such situations, the organization (or one’s department/function) might be skewed towards cultural ‘brainwashing’. The employee could create his ‘island of awareness’ by raising questions and cultivating thought leaders in his team.
The PwC report ‘Future of work : A journey to 2022’ released recently, describes future ‘blue’ organizations, which would straddle the globe and be as big as mini-societies. These profit driven behemoths would use technology to monitor (and influence) even the personal, physical and mental spaces of employees, to ensure higher productivity. The employee would acquiesce in return for job security and better incentives.
Things are surely not that difficult today, and employees can improve their awareness and push back any subliminal ‘indoctrination’ that might harm their organization (and themselves!).
It’s important to accept that this is a soft skill, and employees (especially leaders) may have to be trained to be aware and take action to maintain a ‘clean’ cultural environment in the organization.
Any comments are welcome!