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Is Your Organization "Defensive" or "Inspired"?

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By Jack Cumming

Recently Senior Housing Forum published Part 1 of this 2 part series titled “How Sexy is Your Company?" This is Part 2. The big takeaway is that it’s important not to let dissatisfaction fester but to act before you become bitter. The message for organization leaders is to match employees with the organization’s opportunities and to counsel those who are not suited to the organization to find opportunities elsewhere for which they are better suited.

It can strengthen an organization, though, to retain talent that would otherwise be lost when someone has landed in the wrong spot, or is in a dead end without a future, or has an unsympathetic boss. Time does not heal unhappiness. It’s generally wiser to act sooner rather than later.

Learning and Adapting

Let’s start with the simple observation that a great organization is a learning organization. The world evolves in history. And with that evolution comes learning. The first questions to ask yourself, therefore, are: (1) “Is my organization a learning and adapting organization?” and (2) “Am I learning by affiliating with this organization?” Most importantly, ask yourself if you are happy or unhappy with what you’re doing. Change is a better response to dissatisfaction than complaint.

Corporate Extremes

There are two kinds of organizations: those that are defensive and those that are inspired. Defensive organizations perform against challenging, contrary odds – excessive regulation, fear of litigation, unfair competitors, and other inhibitors. Inspired organizations display joy and opportunity. Of course, these are extreme cultural patterns, and there are many variations in between. Still, organizational culture is central to the experience of serving an organization. Which kind of organization is yours? Is your organization’s culture a good fit for you, your ambitions, and your personal values?

Cultural Personalities

A defensive organization can be insecure about its ability to respond to change. Control and rigid compliance are the defensive responses of insecure leaders. Questions may be experienced as criticisms, and innovation can seem threatening. In such organizations, the most creative, thinking people may be viewed as “loose cannons” or, worse, as “rogues”.

In contrast, inspired organizations embrace the future and seek to lead change. An inspired organization can be liberating unless it’s dangerously radical. To make this critical distinction clear, one can ask whether Elon Musk is liberated or radical. Well-considered change is leadership; radical change is foolhardy. Inspired leaders embrace thoughtful subordinates. They do not demand unquestioning loyalty. They may even see conventional wisdom as pedestrian and unimaginative.

Judgment with Vision

Robert Kennedy is quoted as saying, “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” Of course, that doesn’t mean that all change is positive. The question of “why not” is still a key question. G. K. Chesterton wisely counseled, “Don't ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.” The burden to prove improvement should rest with those who counsel change or reform. Still, an appetite for change is the engine for human progress.

Most people are followers. There’s no disgrace in being a follower. The world needs those who do the labor. Not everyone can lead. Obedience and hard work are all that is expected to thrive in a defensive organization. The predictability and comfort of stability may be what brings you contentment. If that’s for you, then we are grateful for your service. If, however, you are ambitious and have the gumption and sound judgment to go with it, then you will be happier in an organization that celebrates your individuality and rewards your commitment to the future.  

If you are happy, then stay the course. If you are restless and dream of change, then it’s best to act sooner rather than later to find a better situation in which you can find a better fit. Chip Bergh, Levi Strauss & Company CEO, was recently quoted as saying, “I've never regretted moving too fast to let somebody go.” The reverse is true as well: you’re unlikely to regret moving too fast to leave an organization that doesn’t fit you.

Not All Leaders Are Entrepreneurs

The need for a solid fit applies to corporate leaders as much, even more, than it applies to others. Corporate cultures change with time and what was a good fit early in a career may be less so as time progresses. Not everyone wishes to be an entrepreneur. Many leaders are content to be administrators, preserving the status quo and carrying out the policies of others. They like the stability of conventionality.

Others, though, feel called to champion improvement. They need a safe place in which their calling can be realized. The pace may be faster and the remuneration less, but they are pilgrims on a quest and will only be content when they find a like-minded organization. Great leaders have the flexibility to fit people of many needs and talents to the tasks that best fit them.

Great employees recognize when they don’t fit and seek out new assignments and new challenges. Sometimes loyalty requires those with insight to tell those above them in the organization what they need to hear, which may not be what they want to hear. If the corporate leaders welcome such tough advice, those with vision are likely to thrive. If the reverse is true, then it’s best not to hope that C-Suite wisdom is just around the corner. Hope is not a strategy.

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