The Perils of Organizational Narcissism
Some time ago, I posted a piece about a Gold’s Gym franchise in New Jersey that was hurting financially. The owners decided to lower the cost of membership to compete with area independent gyms and workout centers — with horrible results.
They (the owners) had forgotten the value of their brand. And they were suffering with major self esteem issues.
In that piece I mentioned that some organizations fall victim to, what my wife calls, “stinkin’ thinkin.’ ” They lose stock of the dimensions, people and customer experiences that make them different and better. They lose sight of how good they are.
I also mentioned that some companies are at the other end of the spectrum; they think they’re better than they are.
Both situations are curious. Perhaps it’s a function of how (human) personalities drive an organization’s culture. Some individuals are hopeless — and no amount of praise changes their self image — while others are hopelessly full of themselves. Neither is a good place to be. But when it affects other people — the livelihoods of their employees, or the services to customers — it becomes tragic.
Let’s chat about the second type: organizations that eschew criticism and critical thinking…
Important note here: I’m not talking about destructive pessimism. We’ve all worked with Eeyores, and they’re neither fun nor helpful to the business. Nor am I advocating a harsh, disrespectful environment in which staff members are wholly insensitive to each other. Yet there’s a not-so-fine line between fixing what needs to be fixed and endless criticism.
And a disclaimer: While I’ve been accused of such pessimism, in truth I’m just not that fond of organizational mediocrity…especially if the organization has an altruistic mission.
So, what is the reality?
Start with your metrics; they speak for themselves. And for the engaged and interested leadership, it’s all there in black and white — should you choose to regard it. High employee turnover? Difficulty recruiting? Weakening sales (or, for nonprofits, donations)? Low employee morale and engagement? Low and/or declining relevance?
Some leadership insists on painting a rosy picture all the time because they are of the mind that — as Joseph Goebbels demonstrated — if you tell a lie often enough, people begin to believe it.
Some companies create fantasy worlds in which every decision, every meeting, every phone call is great! Nothing is wrong! Look at us! We’re all wonderful! This Disney-like experience is generally fostered by leadership who must believe that boundless positivity begets success.
Recently I watched a video on the dangers of positive thinking. Its narrator, Barbara Ehrenreich, pokes holes in the notion of mind over matter: that, for workers, putting on a happy face for your employer may please your boss (at least in the short term), but ultimately isn’t serving the company or its customers well.
It should remind us of the Hans Christian Andersen story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Keeping quiet and pretending all is right in the world will at some point become embarrassing for the CEO who engenders such a culture.
To wit, there’s the story of a company that recruited a manager to run one of its programs. Word was that the new employee was the “personal fitness coach of someone very high in the U.S. government.”* Reality is that she worked in a fitness center where the dignitary would come and work out. Occasionally.
How did this story get so skewed? It wasn’t the new employee — she was just as mystified as everyone else. Instead, it was likely created and fostered by the person who hired her. Someone with a history of creating and perpetuating a chimeric environment.
Sometimes, I imagine, it’s easier to spin the truth to make us look good instead of focusing on running the business better…especially for those without the skill set to actually run the business better.
So, it’s prudent neither to gloss over your organization’s shortcomings, nor to dwell on them. Instead, identify your organization’s problems and, as my best boss ever used to demand, “Just fix it!”
*Details changed slightly to avoid embarrassing anyone.