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Organisations in Denial

Blair McPherson - former Director, Author and Blogger
Some leaders think it is a perfectly normal state of affairs in these challenging times for managers to be cynical and staff disillusioned. Some leaders claim staff always moan about their managers and distrust senior management and that this does not mean that the organisation will underperform, disappoint clients or has problems that at some point will surface dramatically. They are in denial.
Organisations  as well as individuals can be in denial. An organisation in denial has a tendency when under pressure to conceal, to fall back on standard responses , to be defensive and be over sensitive to public criticism/bad press. Such an organisation has a culture which gives more weight to positive  news than hearing about problems and concerns. There is pressure to only pass good news upwards. When something goes wrong the senior management team / board may be genuinely surprised despite the fact that the problems were common knowledge with in the organisation.
Another symptom of denial is where managers avoid confronting or challenging poor work and inappropriate behaviour either because they lack the confidence and skill or in the mistaken belief that it is better to give the impression of harmony. This can lead to homophobic bullying, sexism and racism being dismissed as office banter or a personality conflict rather being recognised for what they are. In such a work environment staff have no confidence in management or HR and managers are hesitant to rock the boat fearing they will not get support from HR and go out of favour with senior managers.
An organisation in denial is frequently characterised by a leadership that views staff as a problem rather than an asset because they are seen as resistant to change, lazy, frequently absent and take every opportunity to moan about management. Of course these views about staff are usually only expressed behind close doors but believe me they are expressed. Is it any wonder that so many managers in this type of organisation are so cynical.
To turn an organisation from one that is in denial to one that is more open, realist and self critical requires the creation of a climate of safety where people can question, challenge and be challenged. A safe working environment, is a  safe place to say what you really think with out fear of retribution, being considered disloyal, a snitch or a racist.

A safe working environment comes from the top, senior management model the desired behaviour, give permission to say the wrong thing, open out as opposed to close down discussion and are prepared to manage the emotions stirred up.

Senior managers put the same emphasise on values as budgets and performance.( and are prepared to be challenged where these appear to be in conflict for example staffing levels and budget cuts). Communication is a two way process where senior managers create opportunities for direct face to face communication, where staff can ask awkward questions,  as opposed to having messages filtered through middle management .
Where senior managers have the courage and confidence to model speaking plainly and not skirting round difficult questions.

To create and maintain a safe working environment Managers need to be good people managers. Managers need to demonstrate integrity,  no cover ups , no putting a positive spin on events, ignoring criticism or treating those who disagree as disloyal.
To effectively manage people , managers need insight into how their own behaviour affects others. Managers who have good people management skills are able to gain the trust of these they manage and work with. Trusted enough for others to say what they are really thinking.

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