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It is seldom easy for members of staff to challenge authority and the dominant organisational culture; and managers may label as unacceptable irritants those who do speak out. Frank Hore and David Low FRSAs argue that dissent should not require martyrs.

How much flex do you have in you when it comes to organisational nonsense? Your company flies a flag; will you necessarily salute it? Of course, many would say, it depends. It depends on how wacky that latest initiative sounds. It depends on how confident I was feeling about my take on the issue. It depends on the way my colleagues react. And it definitely depends on what happened last time anyone put his or her head over the parapet.

But these variations aside, resistance almost always takes guts; organisational cultures frequently demand compliance. We are expected to behave more or less like everyone else. Stand apart and you tend to stand alone.

Still, given the right catalyst, dissent can spread chemically as individual reactions grow into group concerns. I would guess that there is a progressive path in the response of staff to what they see as ‘bad’ management decisions, starting with resentment à la ‘if that’s the way you want it’, and ending in anger and sabotage. In some circumstances, there will be a side path along the way where people will flip over to take the customers’ side against the company (and you may remember a certain airline’s flight crew in the 90s asking customers to write letters of complaint because ‘our managers don’t know what they’re doing’).

Some years ago we encountered an organisation where, despite the best efforts of management, staff at the sharp end did everything they could to meet customer needs, even to the point of breaking the rules, if that’s what it took. Senior managers in the organisation were so far removed from the front line that they had a bizarrely simplistic concept of what actually happened there, and so insisted on entirely inappropriate procedures. Staff took the side of the customer, with the complicity of some junior and middle managers. They risked disciplinary action, dismissal, even for ignoring maximum call times or involving colleagues from outside the function to track a customer’s complaint or a lost document.

Of course, we have seen people at different levels in many organisations over the years disagree with their corporation’s direction of travel or the tactics it has decided to employ. We have observed diplomacy and protest. We have seen some fall by the wayside as a consequence, too.

But all of this raises a question: what does it take for individuals or groups in organisations to challenge or subvert management’s decisions? What gives them the courage in tough economic times to take a stand and how come they can risk opposing the culture when everyone else is saluting the flag?

Just think of the instances where members of staff do go with the flow (try Googling ‘infuriating customer service’). It can be easier on staff to accept procedures fatalistically, however flawed they might think they are, than to suggest there might be a saner way to do things.

Similarly we like to talk about listening being a management pre-requisite but who is prepared to listen to a smartarse, especially when they’re going against the flow? And cultures exist because most people are happy about them. ‘The culture’ is the way we behave. Cultures do not tolerate misfits. So we must not underestimate the strength it can take to swim against it.

In the case above where members of staff were breaking rules to do right by customers, they got that strength through adversity: historically a curious sub-culture had developed within customer-contact functions. They had begun to think of themselves as the misunderstood champions of the customer. They were unique, they thought, within the company in understanding what customers wanted. Management will thank us in the end, they thought, because we’re saving them from disaster; if the shareholders knew what nonsense was being promulgated in here by the guys on the top floor, there’d be hell to pay. When years earlier their spokesmen stood up to be counted, they were ignored or chastised. They became martyrs and strengthened the cause.

Elsewhere, they were likely to become salutary lessons: ‘don’t step out of line’; ‘look what happened to Harry’.

Do members of staff have to risk martyrdom in your organisation? Is yours a company where people join yes/no camps while senior management sit on the fence, eventually coming down like a ton of bricks on those passionate ‘agitators’ they see as a threat?

These are the days of cold management, of accountancy rules, of managing by the numbers. Passion – once recognised as the sine qua non of a successful enterprise – has become something that rings alarm bells. It is non-standard; it represents the individual; it is the human voice in the business model. And sometimes it is pure gold.


David Low and Frank Hore are partners in The Service Management Partnership, and give advice and steer to the general management of service organisations.

 

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