‘Crucial conversation’: Navigate organizational types to challenge the status quo



“After 15 years working as an engineer at my company, including the last eight as a manager, I find myself wondering more and more about the direction of the company, the impact I have, the issues I have to deal with, etc. I sometimes feel like I’m living the same day over and over again with the same problems and the same status quo thinking about how to solve them. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who challenges the status quo, not someone who reinforces it. Increasingly, I find myself as the odd man out in conversations. I am the one who talks about process improvements. I am the one who challenges the group to think outside the box. While I don’t get much blowback when I do so because I think people respect my skills and what I have to say, I can tell some of them are getting tired of my nagging – which is how I’ve begun to feel, like I’m a nag, an irritant, etc. Why do I have to be the one to encourage the group to see the big picture? Why does my interest in moving ahead to better our efforts leave me talking to myself?”

This is a very complex issue. I will do my best to discuss the situation and offer some general thoughts for moving forward. In doing so, I will use a concept of organizational “types” (see the figure associated with the column) as a basis for my comments.
The figure above is a representation of four basic organizational configurations, types or cultures. Originally posited by Dr. Robert Quinn and his colleagues at the University of Michigan, this model suggests that organizations are built by answering questions and concerns associated with two basic issues: (1) Will the organization primarily be concerned with dynamic issues having to do with exploring, adapting and innovating or static issues having to do with controlling, maintaining and replicating (vertical axis) and (2) Will the organization primarily be externally focused on issues in the marketplace and broad business environment or internally focused on issues within the company (horizontal axis)?

Based upon how the organization answers those four questions, four basic cultures or types emerge as follows:
• Human Relations Model
Organizations of this type are employee-centered work environments. They are primarily concerned with issues of harmony, commitment, and esprit de corps. Leaders who succeed in these settings operate as “Theory Y” contributors by operating as mentors and facilitators.
• Open Systems Model
Organizations of this type are change-driven, dynamic settings where the emphasis is on perpetually moving forward, constantly bettering practices, and so on. There is an ongoing restlessness in these organizations. Leaders who succeed in Open Systems cultures are “change champions” who operate as Innovators and Brokers.
• Rational Goal Model
Organizations of this type are results-oriented, “get the job done” work settings. The emphasis is on meeting the goals, being productive, and so on. Leaders who succeed in these settings are bottom-line focused achievers who operate as producers and directors.
• Internal Process Model
Organizations of this type are consistency and quality-oriented work settings. The emphasis is on establishing procedures, protocols and processes that generate predictable and accurate results. Leaders who succeed in these settings are stability-minded individuals who operate as monitors and coordinators.
There is a lot here, and it is a lot to digest but, at the same time, this a relatively simple model of four basic organizational types that provides a framework for talking about an organization in the same way that one might use the MBTI or the DISC instruments to talk about “personal style” at the individual level.
No organization, department, or work unit is a pure representation of each organizational type. Organizations typically are a mix of the four basic types, although it has been my experience while applying the framework in my consulting practice that organizations, like people, do have characteristic ways of behaving in which preferences, habits and norms reinforce “how we do things around here.” In other words, over time, organizations tend to operate in predictable kinds of ways that tend to line up with one of the basic types or frameworks.
Having introduced a model of organizational types, let me use it to analyze the situation shared by the reader. There are a couple of clues in the question the reader offers. First, the reader notes that he/she is a seasoned engineer. Second, the reader says that he/she has high standards of performance and challenges the status quo. Third, the reader hints that he/she is an outlier in terms of his/her forward-looking mindset.
Putting these pieces together and making some assumptions while I do so, here is what I think is going on in the situation shared by the reader. The reader is no one-rick pony. He/she is a relatively robust leader who possesses a fairly broad leadership repertoire, including some attributes that fit the Open Systems framework. The organization, on the other hand, appears to be an Internal Process work environment that is most concerned with reinforcing, “This is the way we have always done it!”
What we seem to have here is a disconnect and growing misalignment between how the reader prefers to operate and the norms and expectations of his/her peers. By typology, engineering departments and engineering-driven organizations are Internal Process cultures. Engineers, by training and experience, tend to be analytical, logical and rational contributors who strive for consistency and continuity. Someone like the reader, who is future-oriented, possibilities-inclined, etc., is certain to run up against resistance over time.
So what can the reader do to address his/her mounting frustration? My prescription for him/her is to tee up a crucial conversation in which the focus of the discussion is, “How do we lead around here and what do we aspire to become?” In asking macro-level questions, the reader has made the conversation bigger and has taken personalities out of the picture. This is not a personal attack or a personal agenda; it is a desire to level the playing field in terms of the philosophy and approach to be implemented moving forward.
Perhaps an outcome of the meeting can be clarification of roles and responsibilities to be pursued and met by participants. Doing so might reinforce the understanding that while this is an Internal Process culture where leaders primarily operate as Monitors and Controllers, the contributions of the reader as an Open Systems-inclined leader who sees the need for innovation and ongoing improvement are extremely valuable and necessary.
Having a discussion like this can open people’s eyes and expand their thinking. Organizational practices do not have to be cast in stone and contributors are not destined to be automatons who carry on carrying on, ad infinitum.
Indeed, from where I sit, for organizations to be sustainable, the status quo must be regularly challenged and organizational renewal and adaptation must be perpetually pursued. That is a recipe for moving from “good” to “great” to, ultimately, staying great!
Daniel A. Schroeder, Ph.D. is president of Brookfield-based Organization Development Consultants Inc. (www.OD-Consultants.com). He can be reached at (262) 827-1901 or Dan.Schroeder@OD-Consultants.com.

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