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Do You Have Organizational Cancer at Your Work?

 Do you ever wonder why at times, when you wake up, you have unexplainable body aches… perhaps a sore neck, or a strained back, or even tight shoulders?  Do you ever wonder why countless people need coffee to wake up, rather than a passion for going to work everyday?  Why health costs are constantly on the rise for almost every organization, including your own family?  Why the majority of our population is on some form of medication?  The answer is simple – you are under the influence of organizational cancer created by the lack of TRUE leadership…

 Countless studies have validated the impact of organizational issues with its impacts to our health.  According to one study, 72% of Americans are taking some form of pain medication!  In such an advanced society, are we so dependent on drugs to keep us moving forward?  Another study found that Americans are working 20% more per capital from 1970 to 2002, while many of our partner countries have decrease the hours worked.  Similarly, workplace-stress causes an estimated $300 billion in health care costs.  For almost every organization, health cost is rising.  Yet, logically, with our advanced knowledge of technology and science, shouldn’t this cost be decreasing?

 So how do you know if your organization has some form of organizational cancer?  Here’s a short check list of symptoms at the organizational level:

  • The rate of tardiness is consistent or rising (from morning arrivals to meeting initiations)
  • Employee morale is low or decreasing from year to year
  • Health care spending is rising
  • Employee turnover rate is high or rising
  • Rate of innovation (the number of innovations per day) is low or decreasing

And at the individual level, the symptoms are much closer:

  • You’re feeling increased stressed
  • The number of doctor’s visits increase along with medical expenses
  • You have unexplainable aches in your body
  • You’re feeling emotionally drained at the end of the day/week
  • You see the same problems over and over again
  • Waking up is tough…

 Sure, these symptoms are not easy to swallow.  Like cancer inside a person’s body, it eats away at the core of your organization form the inside.  The struggle to increase revenues and profits can only come in short spurts, while longevity is diminished. Ignoring organizational cancer will only cause excruciating pain and an undeniable ending. 

 Recent studies and articles have given us some light to the epidemic.  A recent article in the Academy of Management by Ghoshal (the Premier research based publication) titled – Bad Management Theories are Destroying Good Management Practices stated that the current management principles and theories is likely to create the unethical behaviors such as Enron or WorldCom, which has cost countless people their lives.  For example, most traditional theories such as agency theory, transaction cost economics, and network analysis at the foundation of most management beliefs were founded on false assumptions including the following:

  • Morals are matters for individuals
  • Human behaviors are driven by self-interest alone
  • A focus to “fix” human imperfections

 Based on these false assumptions, organizational leaders create cancer forming structures, even though it is clearly not their intention. They simply do not have the latest research knowledge nor a continued learning process to constantly challenge their belief systems. 

 Looking at one of the most commonly understood management theories – the agency theory, the basic assumption is that people are opportunistic.  Therefore, a detailed policy or rules of conduct are created to govern employee conduct.  Along with those restrictions, agency theory diminishes innovation, creativity, and passion.  The theory failed to account for the possibility of people being creative and caring for others.  When management has a gloomy vision of the organization and its people, one only sees the negative aspects of people. Without the balance of positivism and true leadership, you see only what you expect – humans behaving opportunistically. Thus, organizational cancer thrives in most organizations and causing harm to all employees and especially those closest to you.

 In recent studies with many Columbus companies, employee morale is decreasing over the past few years. Other major companies have found employee turnover as a revolving door while organization knowledge is constantly leaking. In the most “interesting” extreme, one senior leader stated the following at an awards ceremony, “… and he is great at following directions and never asks questions.  That’s a trait I especially like”.  Imagine the impact of such a statement that addressed an entire division… Could this be a probably cause for organizational cancer? 

Many organizations attempt to address morale and turnover with surveys and adding programs.  Often, the surveys are only looking at one side – the impact of organizational cancer, without understanding the root cause.  The tokenism of adding a recognition program has no sustainable impact.  A human being is not like a machine.  You cannot make it work better by greasing the gears.  As responsible leaders, focus on the basic composition of people.  In other words, leaders need to first review and challenge their personal fundamental beliefs and values that drive their behaviors. 

 To cure organizational cancer, band-aide solutions do not work, nor does cutting out sections of where you think the cancer might be. The solution must be a systemic reinvention of belief systems starting with the leadership of the organization. 

By Dr. Ted Sun 

November, 2005

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