Sadomasochistic organizational culturesPosted: December 10, 2008
I have lately been interested in power, and remembered a very interesting point of view. I am sorry that I cannot give references, this is based on a memory of an article, written years ago by a researcher in a Finnish magazine “Aseman Lapset”.
Just knowing this pattern and being able to recognize it may reveal nonfunctional organizational (sub)cultures and bad leadership.
There are many organizations, whith two distinct classes of power users and targets:
- hospitals: staff and patients
- schools: teachers and students
- prisons: guards and prisoners
- army: leaders and soldiers
The phenomenon has been recognized first in the extreme settings, but is easily seen in normal companies when you know the pattern:
- companies: work supervisors/bosses and workers
- product development companies: business (decides) and designers (deliver promises)
One characteristic of these organizations is that the powerful class is causing pain to the targets. It may be forcing to work, physical pain, restricting fulfilment of different needs. This is painful for both parties, and people need mechanisms to relieve the pain.
One facet of the cultural solution may be a sadomasochistic interpreatation of pain and dominance as pleasant.
- heavy use of humor, even harsh
- pigs and chicken in Scrum?
- seeing “us” better than “them”. Assuming the other class does not know or understand, is stupid or stubborn.
- For example prisoners regard guards inferior to them.
- communicating across the class boundary in a way that prevents emotional connection.
- using alienating language
What is relevant in organizational setting is that this kind of situation constrains heavily the Organizational Conversation (Term as used in Complexity Theory in Organizations). It also reinforces the status quo, class boundaries and limited dialogue. This causes:
- loss of talent, creativity and learning
- loss of relevant feedback
- not recognizing weak signals
- loss of work satisfaction and commitment to work
Some cure, if you wish to move to more self-organizing, self-motivating direction. Please remember, that changing habits and culture is very hard!
- open discussion and recognition of the specific situation
- in bad cases competent facilitation needed
- conflict resolution, debriefing and reconciliation
- changing power settings
- start to improve the concrete pain points