I recently shared a few stories of experiences with different businesses around the world with transformation specialist Rob Llewellyn. I have come to understand through discussions like these with experts from all areas of business in many parts of the world that wherever we are many of the issues we encounter are the same. In this post Rob talks about one of the most common, the inability of organisations to turn agreement into action.

Rob Llewellyn is an independent program manager who has helped companies transform their strategies into reality throughout the world since the 1990s. He is an evangelist of BTM² and works tirelessly to encourage more organisations to adopt the fundamental principles of good practice transformation management. www.consult-llewellyn.com

Passive-aggressive firms are happy places to work. People are cordial and friendly, conflict is infrequent, and they pride themselves with a harmonious working environment. Building consensus to make major changes in these places is a joy as things all seem to slip into place – but implementing these changes can feel like sailing around the world in a boat full of holes.

In the Passive-aggressive firm, even failing to change is “OK” as the organisation justifies to its workforce why progress has not been made; everyone agrees, and so it goes on. These places often strive to achieve ‘just average’, and mediocrity is quietly accepted and even celebrated when achieved. e.g. the one year transformation programme which took three years, triple the agreed budget to complete, and which realised only 30% of the original benefits which had justified the business case.

This kind of firm is not necessarily held back by passive-aggressive employees, but they are staffed with mostly well-intentioned people who are the victims of flawed processes and policies. Quite commonly, a growing organisation’s poorly thought-out plans to decentralise give rise to multiple layers of managers, whose authority for making decisions becomes increasingly unclear. Consequently, some managers hang back, while others won’t own up to the calls they’ve made, inviting colleagues to second-guess or overturn the decisions. In such organisations, information does not circulate freely, and that makes it difficult for workers to understand the impact of their actions on company performance and for managers to correctly appraise employees’ value to the organisation.

The Solution
. Breaking free from this pattern is hard as a long history of seeing corporate initiatives ignored and then fade away tends to make people cynical. But if leaders are able to ‘step outside’ of their organisation and take a look in from the outside, they might well recognise that it’s best to bring in an outsider to signal that “this time things will be different“. The external consultant will need to address every obstacle all at once: clarify decision rights; see to it that decisions stick; and reward people for sharing information and adding value, not for successfully negotiating corporate politics. But to do this, the consultant must also have the full backing of the leader who had the wisdom to engage the external consultant.

But if steps are not taken to really change things, it’s only a matter of time before the haemorrhaging elements of a passive-aggressive organisation overwhelm the remaining healthy ones and drive the company into distress. Ironically, this profile fits many organisations and it’s not difficult to identify them after spending a short time inside. Having secured a large and defensible market position, they fiddle around with a few projects while Rome slowly burns.

Gary Neilson of Booz & Co wrote an excellent paper called; “The Passive-Aggressive Organisation – Converting Consensus Into Action” and you can download it here. In it, the symptoms of the passive-aggressive organisation are described as follows:

Passive-aggressive chart

Source: Booz and Co. The Passive-Aggressive Organisation. By Gary Neilson

Phil Darby
March 13, 2014

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