Saturday, May 19, 2012

CYA Culture

Imagine this scenario:

You are a professional baseball player on a team with some other incredibly talented athletes.  A ball is hit through the middle where neither the short stop or second baseman can get to it.  They try but with strained effort.  Why don't they try harder?  They knew if they got the ball, they'd never be able to make the play at first.  So they don't try harder, because they feared making an error.  As the ball goes past them, they point to each other with blame as the ball goes into the outfield.  Talented athletes with some obvious flaws.

The ball continues into the outfield but the ball continues to roll past the center fielder.  Why?  He doesn't get the ball because he isn't sure he has the proper paperwork filed to cover himself.  His manager hasn't approved his pursuing the ball.  This isn't his problem.  The other other fielders are busy on the phone with their lawyers to make sure that they are covered.

Okay, you got me, this is an absurd scenario.  Clearly if a team acted in this manner, regardless of their talent, they would never win a game.  Yet for many corporate offices this is the culture that exists. Covering yourself is king. Doing the right thing for the team, taking ownership of a situation even it would reflect badly on you, seems to be a thing of the past.  You hear often about how our society is suffering from a crisis of leadership, but it seems deeper than that.  A crisis of management is more like it.  When we work in an environment where finger pointing is more likely than collaboration, where asking for help is a sign of weakness rather than strength, then not only the team loses, everyone does the fans, the franchise, the nation.

A few years ago, I found myself in a Providence bar talking/arguing about Max Weber and goal displacement with a couple of strangers. The conversation was so intense that I looked up and noticed the bar had been closed around us.  I didn't know I was chatting with the owner.  The general feeling was that organizations are bound to lose. Their goals are eventually displaced by a sense of self-preservation. If your organization's goal is to wipe our birth defects, what going to happen to your career, if your organization succeeds. You might lose your job and your career is in shambles.  So your goal gets displaced with the goal of self-preservation.  One has to wonder if the same can be said for individuals.  Given a certain social environment or management style, do people preserve their own ass over the long term goal of their team?  Umm ... you betcha!  No biggie if you are a barista, but you are a surgeon, designing bridges, building bombs, or even supporting a database, you need to work in an environment where making an error is acceptable, admitting you made is safe and the team has your back. You don't fail as an individual you succeed as a team.  If the ball goes through your legs into the outfield, you need to know your teammates will be getting the ball not lining up to blame you for the errors.  That is the job of the fans in the bleachers.

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