Worried Business Man Sitting on a Bar Graph

The past two weeks have provided dozens, if not hundreds of examples of the power of repetition. Even more powerful than repetition is multiplied repetition. The expression that something is “going viral” is an apt description of what happens when a larger and larger group repeats a story, a fact, a misunderstood concept, an idea or a lie.

Here’s what can happen:

  • Someone creates a story to go with the smallest shred of information.
  • The story is congruent with what we already believe.
  • New pieces of information that support the thesis are embedded.
  • New pieces of information that disconfirm the story are discarded.
  • Attributions about why people did certain things are added and become accepted.
  • Causal links are made – “they did this because of that and it led to this.”
  • People who bring disconfirming evidence are mocked, derided as naïve and are cut out of the discourse.
  • Positions become more polarized.
  • People are more disenchanted and eventually, angry enough to be destructive.

This may sound like I’m talking about the political campaigns of 2016. I am, and I’m not. I certainly see it in that arena. More often, I see it in companies and it has very negative consequences, sometimes extreme.

An example – a client, the chairman of the board, heard things about the chief executive officer that were of great concern. His human resources leader investigated and found the complaints to be credible. I was asked to look into the situation further. The news was devastating. The CEO was a nightmare. I was amazed that anyone would work at this place and honestly wondered what kind of person would. He was quickly removed. Problem solved, right? No.

Removing one person does not solve a systemic issue. Share on X

The story about how lousy the board was persisted. Beliefs about a lack of concern for employees were rampant. Decisions were interpreted in the most cynical way imaginable. The place was rotten. It was a full-on crisis.

What did we do?

  • Gave everyone a pass for past bad behavior. The leader had been terrible and resentments were understandable.
  • Promised a new day and provided a plan for how that would work.
  • Hired new leaders not tainted by the systemic cynicism.
  • Improved professional development.

These were all important, but by far the most significant were two things:

  • First, removal of those who could not let go of their anger. Embittered repeaters of negative stories, erroneous assumptions, cynical interpretations and especially those who sought allies in the war against the board and the new CEO.
  • Second, promotion of those who had grievances, but brought them forward in a manner that could be acted upon. These people were willing and able to make things better.

The new CEO was willing to do what was necessary. It wasn’t easy, it didn’t happen immediately but within a year the place was entirely different.

The issue in my example is commonly understood to be organizational culture, the amorphous thing that is hard to change. Why is it so hard? Because it feels risky, hard and undefined. My client did it by changing what he, and others, did.

If you are ready to take up the challenge of aligning your culture with your strategy, you needn’t be in crisis to call me for help. First, you can watch my video series called Sculpting the Future.

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