Sometimes I say, with a bit of cheek, that Executive Teams are prepared to pay a lot of money NOT to learn about what is really going on in their organisations. Every year, so many resources are spent on quantitative survey tools that loosely point to areas of challenge (e.g. poor communication, bullying, low morale, distant managers, high turnover etc.), but provide little or no rich detail about what sits behind the data in terms of the lived experience that prompts the given responses. Investing in survey tools can deliver the illusion or a sense of taking responsibility and being seen to do something to improve organisational culture and engagement, while actually delivering very little by way of a clear diagnosis or appropriate interventions that go to the heart of the problems and address the gaps between desired work culture and reality.

Practitioners of psychodynamic approaches to organisational diagnosis and change are all too familiar with the lengths that individuals, groups and organisations will go to not to discover what is really going on. I am reminded of a colleague who once said, ‘I guess because you’re naming dynamics that people don’t really want to know about – you’re cutting through defences to some extent, as you have to if they’re dysfunctional …A lot of people want to live in the Matrix and they don’t want to know about this stuff.’

The mystery here is that people will put up with a lot of misery to avoid discovering what may be inconvenient ‘truths’ about themselves, their way of working and/or their work systems and processes. Whether this is about a failure to spend enough time listening to staff, making spaces for difficult but necessary conversations between interdependent teams, having clearly defined roles and agreed goals, taking time to mourn the losses associated with recent changes or just getting to know each other, the cure somehow seems worse than the disease. I find that most of the time, people instinctively know what is wrong and what may be needed to change things, but somehow find it easier not to make this explicit.

What is required, is space, time and a willingness to hold each other to account over the most basic responsibilities and shared agreements. People often imagine that this makes it ‘personal’ rather than actually acting in the service of the organisation’s purpose and from the authority appropriately vested in the role. Making this shift to working from role and in the service of the work is a lot easier and less painful than people imagine and can bring a lot of ‘relief’ from the misery of things staying as they are or have always been. But this is not the kind of thing that can be learned from survey results and this is what makes them (sometimes) useful, but blunt instruments of organisational change.

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