While many factors create complexity in the workplace, some of the hardest to face up to are the things we do to protect ourselves – and inadvertently make life difficult for us and those around us.
The hardest complexity is created by us
Like it or not, we all have fears, and while we don’t often think they relate to our actions at work, they do.
Losing credibility – “maybe I’m not good enough?”, or not belonging – “they don’t realise I’m not one of them” – are two of the most common fears that drive our behaviour. Our reaction is to protect ourselves. We do this by creating relationships with powerful people, putting in place structures and processes that we hope make us or our teams indispensable, or fighting tooth and nail for the interests of our own function. By fighting for what we believe is best for us, we often fight against what’s best for the organisation as a whole.
In Tom Rieger’s book Breaking the Fear Barrier1 – based on Gallup’s research – bureaucracies (an approximate synonym for complexity in this context) are defined as “practices and endowments that create harm for the many while benefitting the few”. It’s clear we don’t usually create these practices through malice, but we all play our part in creating or enforcing complexity that protects our own interests.
Many of us have created projects at the end of the year to not lose budgets next year. We’ve pushed our brands hard when we know a particular customer would be better off with another brand from our company. We’ve not had the tough conversation with our boss about letting another team ‘take the credit’ when we know it’s the right thing to do (“he decides my bonus after all”).
Rieger’s three phases of bureaucracy.
Although somewhat overlapping, Rieger’s book does a good job of uncovering some of the causes of our behaviour within organisations.
01. Parochialism. As organisations grow, through necessity functions are divided up to manage the increasingly complex business. The outcome? Groups aim to deliver their own objectives and lose sight of the greater good, protecting their interests (time, respect, resources, power) at all costs. Think of this as the silo mentality we all know from budget conversations or people moves.
02. Territorialism. Growing scarcity of resources in the organisation means priority calls need to be made. The outcome? Managers seek to control their own resources, and start to limit access of their people to information, decision-making, time, support and training to cling onto control. Although not dissimilar to parochialism, Rieger’s definition of territorialism is focused on the need of individuals to ensure control within their own teams.
One of the more absurd examples he shares was of a business that denied rental car expenses if the receipt showed that the renter used the car for fewer than 50 miles. So clearly employees would just drive around the airport until they hit the 50-mile mark. A prime example of unnecessary complexity causing low (or negative) value activity.
03. Empire building. As the organisation continues to grow and evolve, the increased complexity results in further division of functions, the increasing scarcity of resources, and proliferation of joint-resources (e.g. Shared Services). The outcome? People now start to encroach into other areas to make sure of their own survival, and protect against potential losses.
What can we do?
As the behavioural psychologists Kahneman and Tversky argued2, the pain of loss far outweighs the pleasure of gain – so once we’ve built up our protective structures, it takes some courage to try a new way. It’s doubly hard to be a lone ranger. If others are embroiled in empire-building, it’s not easy to take another path.
Unsurprisingly, there is no silver bullet. Individually, acknowledging that we all do this – in true coaching style – is the first step. Then taking the time to identify one thing you do that you know causes others pain, and ask yourself why you do it will help.
Of course we should also tear down the obviously pointless barriers we’ve created. But since fear is a major root cause of complexity, we should find ways to foster courage to prevent more unnecessary complexity creeping back.
Four of Rieger’s tips for fostering courage (paraphrased):
- For any role or task, align ‘what’s in it’ for the individual and for the organisation. When we have a clear purpose, we gain courage
- Don’t force people into jobs or career paths that don’t suit them
- Engage employees 1-to-1. Managers who care are the key
- Reward courageous behaviour (e.g. publicly celebrate examples of bureaucracy busting)
Takeaway: As a client of ours described, “no one likes going to those murky places”, but as the Dr Pepper advert famously probed, “What’s the worst that can happen” if we do?
Taking a brief look at your own behaviour, and the cause of it, may well help you learn a thing or two about the complexity shadow you cast. And if that’s not enough, it will equip you to spot the behaviours in others who might be trying to steal your team or your resources!
Finally, for more thoughts on the topic, Tom Rieger’s book is definitely worth a read.
- Breaking the Fear Barrier: How Fear Destroys Companies From the Inside Out and What to Do About It, Tom Rieger, 2011(book, or a summary article)
- Advances in prospect theory: Cumulative representation of uncertainty, Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman,1992 (academic paper)