I’m a practitioner of organizational development. “OD,” as it’s called, is the field of practice that primarily focuses on changing people, processes, and structures to help bring about performance improvement.
Because OD folks are always striving to help organizations reach a better future, a lot of OD folks lean toward idealism. Sometimes militantly so. “Shared leadership,” for example, is held up by many OD professionals as the highest leadership ideal. When everyone owns the outcomes, and everyone shares the leadership burden, performance and morale is boosted.
Another new ideal being spread by OD professionals is leadership “vulnerability.” When leaders open up about their weaknesses and secret fears, followers, we are told, build a kinship with them. Acknowledging your leadership weaknesses is the best way to build follower loyalty.
Call me a jaded OD professional, but I just think us OD professionals spend too much time advancing ideals that work better in aboriginal tribes than in actual organizations. Most business organizations are not social democracies. They are, mostly, benevolent dictatorships. The few people at the tippy-top make decisions for the masses below. Sure, as an OD professional I wish it weren’t so. I wish everyone had a voice, all people were treated equally and equitably, and that carrots replaced sticks as workplace motivators. I also wish for world peace.
Uncompromisingly holding on to high ideals is a good thing. Until it becomes a bad thing. The problem with OD fundamentalism is that it is elitist. It assumes that OD ideals are the ideals to which every organization everywhere should aspire. When organizations and their leaders fall short of the OD ideals – and most do – the idealistic OD elitist can look down on the bourgeois workplace and indignantly proclaim, “They just don’t get it.”
I prefer practical ideals that work to lofty ideals that don’t. My job as an OD professional isn’t to change people or shame them into doing things the OD way. My job is to help people get clear about the ideals that will serve them, and then help support them as they do their best to live into their own ideals.
If you’re an OD professional, I encourage you to stop doing these things:
- Stop talking about The Emperor with No Clothes. Good God, can we please come up with a new metaphor for describing leadership? Most leaders are doing the best they can, so cut them some slack.
- Stop trying to get people to “open up” about their pain. Enough focusing on sharing weaknesses and vulnerability. A little is okay, but too much just makes people feel emotionally raw and exposed.
- Stop fixating on a shared leadership ideal. Most organizations are hierarchical structures, not ashrams. Get over it. Empowering others is good, abdicating one’s leadership responsibilities under the guise of empowerment is bad.
- Stop relying on obscure academic research. Lessons gotten from clinical studies done on lab rats or graduate students don’t translate to the real-world of work. Base your advice on what you’ve actually experienced or seen work, not by results research spectators saw in a lab.
- Stop using smarty-pants words. Words like pedagogy, efficacy, and gestalt may make you sound smart in front of your OD colleagues, but they make you sound like an out-of-touch egghead to regular folks at work.
You want to make a difference in the world of work? Then quit trying to get it to live into your worldview. Work with what is. Hold on to your ideals but don’t lose sight of practicality. OD is about positive change. The best way to bring about change in others is to let change start with you.
Bill Treasurer is the founder of Giant Leap Consulting, a courage-building consultancy. Treasurer is the author of Leaders Open Doors, which focuses on how leaders create growth through opportunity. He is also the author of Courage Goes to Work, an international bestselling book that introduces the concept of courage-building. He busted his butt writing Courageous Leadership: A Program for Using Courage to Transform the Workplace, an off-the-shelf training toolkit that organizations can use to build workplace courage. Bill’s first book, Right Risk, draws on his experiences as a professional high diver. Bill has led courage-building workshops for, among others, NASA, Accenture, CNN, PNC Bank, SPANX, Hugo Boss, Saks Fifth Avenue, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. To learn more, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
photo credit: ScoRDS