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The Institutionalized Followers

clipboard-with-pencil_16x16 While working with dozens of organizations in the last decade I came across many different types of organizational cultures. However one type has intrigued me particularly, I call it “the culture with the institutionalized followers.” At a first sight it looks as if the employees (or at least some of them) are loyal and dedicated to the goals of their organization. They work hard and are ready to sacrifice their work-life balance for the good of the company. Some may argue, that this is an indication of a highly motivated workforce. I agree that this could be the case, but unfortunately I discovered in some cases that people are motivated by an “unhealthy” social dynamic that is stimulated and reinforced by the company culture. Additionally (some of) the employees are so much sucked into the system that losing their authenticity, their respect for others, their self-respect and even their integrity is the price they pay. While trying to understand the power that such cultures have over people, I so far observed the following social dynamics.

1. Rationalizing what is happening

In one organization, a senior female manager told an employee that when she sometimes get up during the night because her young child is crying, her child would always be calling for her daddy. She explained to the employee (a pregnant young lady) that her child called for her father because, she (as a senior manager) works long hours and spend much lesser time with her kids than her husband does. She told the young lady, “You know that is what it takes to be successful in this organization you have to be ready for this. When you want to combine your professional life with a family life, you have to know where you put your priorities, ...”.

This is an exemplary example of behavior in a culture with institutionalized followers. They tend to rationalize that what they do is the only right way. Even when this would mean that they would potentially harm themselves or the relationships they have with others. In many occasions I could observe that they neglect their own needs and the needs of their friends and family members. The hard work they do is not driven by passion, but by a system that demands it. Additionally they expect others to do the same.

2. The company ideology is the basis for an unhealthy company culture.

Each time I was confronted with a company culture of institutionalized followers I could observe that there was a sort of strong “company ideology”. People who would question anything that is related to this ideology like company values or way of working, would get isolated very quickly. In one such organization someone told me that senior hires would very rarely survive more than a year. When looking at the figures, it was true that this organization (later I found out that this was true for other organizations with a similar company culture) had an extensive track record of senior hires that were laid-off or left the organization by themselves just a few years after they were hired. Because these people had working experience and brought new and fresh idea’s to the company, it was most of the time seen as criticism and lack of integration. Questioning the “ideology” was just not done.

In the more extreme versions of such cultures I witnessed that people would sometimes start to lose their moral compass. A senior manager confessed to me once that “respect was not the strongest value” of his organization. “People work very hard for the company, but when they would for some reasons lose the support of the CEO or one of his spin doctors, they would be put aside in a subtle way and without any difficulty. Lies and rumors about them would flourish in the company.” He went on that “all managers can see what happens, but no one will react to the injustice... and that includes me.” Social psychology has produced quite some experiments that show that people, under the influence of a specific culture, are negligent to help others although there personal values and upbringing would demand it from them. This is particularly true in organizations with institutionalized followers.

3. Fear for being left out

Fear is another important feature of a culture with institutionalized followers. The fear to be left out and the need for social approval can, when initiated by people with wrong intentions, be a very powerful lever to control people. So far I could observe that in all the cultures with institutionalized followers, the preferred power strategy at the top is the principle of divide and conquer.

Although it is probably one of the most basic and well known strategies to manipulate people, I’m sometimes surprised by how well it still works and how easy management teams are controlled by it. When leaders divide there direct circle of influence, they have total power. The dynamic is always the same, a leader would basically tell slightly different information to his different direct reports. In this way they (the management team) are puzzled about the true intentions of the leader. Additionally he/she would promise them, individually and in confidence (and often in vague wordings), that they would benefit from “loyal behavior”. In this way a fake intimacy is created between leader and follower with the single purpose to control the follower. Fear of losing the “intimate” relationship and the fear to be put out of the inner circle, make people to develop a blind loyalty to a leader and it makes them to ignore the signs of an manipulative company ideology.

4. Relationships between (senior) managers are mostly Instrumental

An important characteristic of cultures with institutional followers is that relationships between colleagues are almost exclusively instrumental. This is especially true for people higher up in the hierarchy. The divide and conquer leadership style is one of the main drivers of this. People who dare to invest in building honest and authentic relationships, run the risk of sharing information that will be exploited by those who are ready to do what it takes to stay in favor of their autocratic leader. Unfortunately in such a culture, information is power and trust a sign of nativity or stupidity.

5. The meaning that people attribute to their work

Finally in all of the cultures with institutionalized followers, I observed a restricted perception of reality. In each case people would overestimate the importance of their organization to their industry or even to society. Additionally in most cases people would express some feeling of gratitude that they can be part of this important organization and work for their leaders. However any outsider with some years of working experience would have enough benchmark information to see that the meaning and the importance that they attribute to the situation they work in is overrated. It is typical for institutionalized followers, that they are “trapped” in the reality that was created for them by the system and that prevents them from leaving the organization.

Conclusion: Is it better to be in a bad heaven or in a good hell?

It’s like the difference between living in a bad heaven or in a good hell. A bad heaven is a place where people in exchange for some status, some degree of security and financial incentives, live a life that deprives them from their values and freedom. A good hell on the other hand is the place where people are when they have the courage to leave their prison like organization. In exchange for some suffering, because they loose their status, security and financial incentives, they become open again to the world and its opportunities. If then they find back their own values they will be able to find or create a company with a culture that is aligned with who they are. In this way they give themselves the opportunity to live up to their full potential and to further develop themselves professionally and personally.

geinstitutionaliseerde-volgelingen-lieven-verbrugge.jpgLieven Verbrugge, EzineArticles Platinum Author
This article was also published in Peoplesphere a Belgian magazine specialised in Human Resources (Flemish language).

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