Victims of Big: Surviving a Deadly Corporate Plague

That growth is both an economic advantage and an existential threat in modern organizations is not a new concept. The dangers of runaway growth are well known and well documented.  

In the 1990’s IBM became a corporate comeback story by transforming its self-described “wild west” culture into a harmonized integration of once “maverick” teams.  Accountability replaced gullibility as IBM restored discipline and commitment across its workforce.  

IBM was a victim of big.  It survived by changing.

Volkswagen was a victim of big.  Engineers knowingly designed engines that could detect when their emissions were being tested, switching into a sort of “clean mode” that could trick environmental-quality inspectors.  Once on the open road, “the engines emitted nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above what is allowed in the US.”  The scandal brought Volkswagen, the largest automaker in the world, to its knees.

Despite what we know about the dangers of runaway growth and psychopathic bureaucracy, we continue to witness the implosion of behemoths in the public and private sectors.

Here in the Midwest, Michigan State University is now embroiled in the worst of scandals, reportedly turning a blind eye to the rampant sexual abuse of young gymnasts by a sick doctor whose star-power in the U.S. gymnastics community intimidated would-be whistleblowers and rendered less believable those who summoned the courage to come forward.

In the wake of organizational collapse, we are left scratching our heads.  

How could this have happened?  

How did these once trusted organizations allow such incompetent or evil people go unchecked for so long?

The answer is, they became victims of big.

The physical size of an organization is a relevant factor in predicting the likelihood of catastrophic failure.  Too much growth can stretch an organizational culture, impairing all forms of communication and the sharing of critical information.  Top managers become ignorant of internal affairs.  Employees feel distanced from the decision-makers and their expectations – sometimes being harmed by it, sometimes taking advantage of it.  

The result is an erosion of unity and the systemic release of accountability across the culture.  

To avoid becoming victims of big, organizations must know how to shrink their organizational cultures even as their physical sizes are being stretched.  

Self-scrutiny is key.  The following is a list of 5 questions that large organizations should ask of themselves as often as possible: 

  1.  Do we give equal consideration to upward communication?  
    Communication is communication.  That it perhaps originates from lower-levels of the organizational structure does not make it less valuable.  For organizations to thrive, information must flow freely in both directions, ensuring that all levels of responsibility have equal access to critical information.
      
  2.  Does top management share the rationale for their actions? 
    Unless the foundations of decision-making are understood across the culture, it becomes impossible to develop leaders and advocates within an organization who can retain continuity of vision and accountability when there is turnover in the managerial ranks. Too often, upper managers cocoon themselves within the protective confines of a small entourage.  When this happens, the rest of the organization starves and withers like a grape on a severed vine.
      
  3.  Do we enage and reconnect with rogue teams and leaders? 
    Top management should be on the lookout for leaders and teams that appear to go it alone, disconnecting from the channels of accountability that maintain cohesiveness and discipline across the organization.  This is not a call to micromanage or stifle creativity, since rogue teams and their leaders are often quite talented, able, and good-willed.  Their exploits may be born of high competence and commitment, with their maverick approach to work being nothing more than the result of excessive focus on a goal. In fact, it may be that upper management needs to improve as they become outpaced by high-performers in the ranks.  Sometimes, when leaders and teams sense that upper management can’t keep up, they go rogue.
      
  4.  Do we value basic human courtesy and dignity above rank?  
    Organizations must never allow rank to serve as the basis for basic courtesies and dignified treatment.  The moment that individuals feel they need to achieve a higher rank to enjoy basic courtesies and dignified treatment is the moment it becomes culturally permissible for men to harass women, whites to disenfranchise minorities, and youngsters to mistreat their older counterparts.  Simply by virtue of being human, all employees, regardless of rank, must be treated with respect and courtesy. No exceptions.  This sends a clear message to decision-makers and other persons of power and influence within an organization that any mistreatment or abuse of others is entirely unacceptable.  
      
  5. Are we addicted to our own success and power?
    The failure of large organizations to prevent catastrophic failure is sometimes induced by the fear of losing something of great value – usually money or power.  In the case of Dr. Larry Nassar at Michigan State University, the prominence that MSU had in all-things-gymnastics would have been threatened by any attempts to confront Nassar’s behavior.  This is not to suggest that the university engaged in the intentional endangerment of children.  It does, however, mean that strong, subconscious forces can prevent organizations from recognizing their addictions, just as alcoholics are often the last to see that they need help.

To say that big is a new threat in the management of organizations is a bit disingenuous.  In fact, it’s not new.  

What is new, however, is the explosiveness of the growth and influence that can be achieved in the digital era.  

But as quickly as a team can grow, it can collapse even faster.  

John Collins is a High-Stakes Leadership Consultant & Executive Coach at Critical Victories near Lansing, Michigan.  He is an active speaker, writer, coach, and consultant focusing on people, teams, and organizations seeking to thrive in high-pressure environments.  Learn more about John and Critical Victories at www.criticalvictories.com.

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