29 October 2009

Don’t Mind the Stains (or Evidences of Organizational Longevity)

I recently put on my white elastic banded socks and wore them all day. It wasn't until that evening while visiting some friends that I removed my shoes and realized that I had worn the wrong socks. I have two pairs of white elastic banded socks. This pair was different from the other pair, and indeed all my other socks, in that they were heavily stained. While I was initially embarrassed over having worn stained socks I quickly remembered why they were stained: I had worn this very pair of socks a few years ago while playing football with some friends in muddy field on a wet Oregon day. The stains incurred were and are an ever present reminder of the fun game that was played and the victory that was achieved after much effort. I had kept the socks as something of a trophy from that game.

These stained socks serve as a reminder of my accomplishment. Other stains do not have such fond memories attached to them. Juice stains in the carpet, oil stains on a favorite shirt or blood stains on pants. In many ways each of these was simply part of my life's course. Each also has a memory attached to them, some better than others, and though each has a story none of them elicit the pride of my mud stained socks.

Organizations also have stains. The longer they are around the more they will have. Some of the stains are like giant juice stains on the floor while others are small marks of personal accomplishment like my socks. Each has a story and reason behind it and these reasons have shaped the growth of that organization. Even if the stain is cleaned and is no longer visible, those who knew about the stain will still remember it was there.

Sometimes you can catch the host stealing glances at the now clean carpet patch, or you notice they avoid it by walking around a perceptively good patch of carpet. Organizationally this may take form as employees refusing to do something because a specific person is supposed to handle it, even if that person is on vacation. They may provide excuses such as "I don't know if I am allowed to do that" or they may lie saying "I'll take care of it" while they are secretly waiting for the absent person to come back and handle it. Sometimes they will blatantly refuse, "Oh, no I can't. Carl has to do it."

Policy formation can be greatly affected by minor stains like a pair of old pants that you can't part with, but you never wear because they have a ketchup stain on the thigh. These can be an embarrassing moment the owner had with a customer, a mid-level manager who was publically humiliated by a superior or an employee who said the wrong thing to a customer and was severely disciplined. Each situation can cause new policies that forbid the wearing of the tarnished garment, but not the disposal of it because you never know when you have need a mostly useless policy.

Behavioral ethics can also be influenced by stains, or rather the threat of new stains. This happens when people are especially careful around certain individuals who sometimes have "accidents" that may cause a spill and subsequent stain. It may be a viscous manager who, upon offense, spreads your shame across the company, a co-worker who is known to spread gossip and rumors to any who will listen or even an accidental run-in that may cause some awkward questions to be asked. This careful avoidance of potential staining is very different from the careful attention given while wearing special clothing.

Not all stains remain hidden. Some are shown off and even publicly aired. These stains, much like the mud stained socks, are symbols of the organization's victory, near death experiences and staying power. They are aired in defiance of their competition and their display are a challenge to their opponents. These stains can be more liberal customer return policies put in place after a viscous battle with a competitor, a special greeting among members in honor of a beloved leader or a signature service performed "because that's way we've always done it". These stains are not always metaphorical, like most of the other organizational stains, but are sometimes literal: burn marks from a fire that nearly destroyed a warehouse or cracks a building's walls caused by a strong earthquake. Often these stains are glorified and incorporated into the organization's myths.

The longer the organization has been around, the more stains it is bound to have. Not all stains are bad, in fact many can lead to improved moral and loyalty, but often these stains lead to the creation and sustaining of policies that don't really make sense and can be damaging to the organization and those that associate with it.

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