Picture the scene. You are on a tube train, minding your own business and then it starts. Someone picks on someone else. You turn to look, see some poor person on the receiving end of abuse from an unsavoury character. Its ugly, threatening. What do you do? Like most people I suspect you will ignore it, bury your head in your paper, raise your book closer to your face, discreetly turn up the volume on your iPod and thank your lucky stars its not you.
It’s wrong, of course, but totally understandable. The risk is too high. You weigh up your chances against the threatening oaf and decide the risk is too great. And there may be a hidden weapon, you never know. So back to your book you go, lamenting how the country is going to the dogs.
Now re run that scenario again. But instead of no action, when the trouble starts, 4 or 5 brave passengers jump straight up and step in, coming to the persons aid. What then? Experience tells us that we are much more likely to step up ourselves, joining in and helping the others. Why? Well two prime reasons:
Risk – you against the bad guy? Way too risky. But you and 4 or 5 others? That’s a different matter. The risk is shared – you don’t feel so vulnerable. Lots of people are saying what you want to say and doing what you want to do.
Ego – I don’t mean this in an unkind way at all. Being able to ‘do good’, is good for the soul. The thought of being part of a group action to save the victim makes you stand out. It boosts your self-esteem. You feel less of a victim yourself. His pain is your pain so fixing it helps you too.
The overall effect of the crowd – the increased numbers of like minded folk stepping-in gives you the confidence to step up yourself.
So what has this got to do with organisations?
Well, it occurs to me that the train scenario represents what is going on all around the globe in dysfunctional organisations it represents everything that is wrong with the way we run those companies.
In every organisation there is someone – the CEO or divisional/departmental heads – orchestrating the actions of others. OK, so they are not harassing or threatening physical violence (not in all cases anyway!). But replace that with politics, process, ego, power, ambition and couple it with hierarchy and the dynamics are very similar.
Unrest in organisations has largely been an underground thing. Keeping your head down, turning the other cheek, thanking your lucky stars it wasn’t your ass on the line – all similar behaviours. We’ve all done it, only ever really venting our frustrations in the annual employee survey or to co-workers standing around the watercooler.
When the chips are down, even though most of us feel the pain, we never speak up and would probably not support anyone that did. Why not? Because we don’t want to rock the boat, to put our name in the frame, be singled out for dissent or put our head above the parapet. The risk of stepping up is too high – there is no one to share the risk with. It’s you against the machine. You alone against the big guy.
But I think that’s all about to change.
Suddenly, people have a voice. As someone recently said in a comment I read:
(With social media) Every employee now has a microphone and they are starting to use them.
A recent court case in the US has effectively positioned free speech on facebook as an employee right – which roughly translated means that expressing your dissatisfaction re your boss and employer on your facebook page can no longer be held against you. This will only encourage those who have already decided to step up and ‘out’ poor management and leadership practice openly on social media sites.
And once the ball starts rolling, it won’t stop. Organisation dysfunction is now leaking out, for better or worse, through social communication and those that kept their heads down for fear of reprisals will now be so much more inclined to step up too. Why wouldn’t they? They are no longer alone. Overnight half the company could be standing up and saying its not good enough, taking the leadership to account. Sites like www.glassdoor.com are already gaining momentum, encouraging employees to say how it is in their organisation, including compensation levels and rating the CEO.
In a funny kind of way, social media is re-enabling the collective. It seems like a modern, virtual, global, Trade Union type camaraderie is emerging. Leaders and organisations should really be taking note. Riding roughshod over your “greatest asset” might just be about to come with a much wider set of set of implications.
Back to the thug on the train on the train analogy – take a look over your shoulder, you might just find the whole carriage standing behind you.