Nonsense Is the New Normal

Even pre-COVID, your organization was probably a little crazy. But if you bust through the B.S., you can focus on the things that matter—and become a better leader.

By George Binney, Philip Glanfield, and Gerhard Wilke

The business world is often hailed as a paragon of efficiency and entrepreneurial vitality. But ask anyone who has experienced corporate life and they’ll tell you all about the other side. Though large organizations achieve many wonderful things, so much of what happens inside their (even virtual) walls makes no sense at all.

This is the elephant on the Zoom call. Instead of talking about it, we tiptoe around it and patiently (or impatiently) wait for it to move along. It never does.

Consider the following patterns in many companies and organizations, across very different sectors, and you might feel a deflating sense of recognition:

Tick box madness. People’s working lives are full of activities that don’t add any value. Think of the unproductive meetings, plans, and strategies that don’t make a difference. How about the evaluations and reports that no one reads?

We’ve met senior managers who calculate that 50 percent of their time is wasted. How much of your time is spent performing tasks that don’t mean anything to you, your colleagues, or the organization?

Fragmentation. Work is subdivided and splintered. There are always more contracts, procedures, and protocols that define what people are supposed to do. So why does most important work gets lost in the cracks between and within organizations? How big are the functional fissures in your organization?

Metrics mania. Numbers are everywhere and everything. The problem: We don’t understand what they mean or how they should be used. How often have you feigned full understanding of the significance of particular numbers?

We all know numbers matter, but they’re dangerously seductive. They make us think they’re the only thing that matters, and by knowing them, we know what’s really happening. We don’t.

Endless reorganizations. Every time there’s a problem with performance, there’s pressure to change managers and restructure. And sure, organizations do need to restructure from time to time. But are our imaginations so limited that this is our only response? Before restructuring, we should reflect on the last reorganization and consider how much value it really added.

Alignment compulsion. People are expected to be aligned with the strategy, mission, and goals of the organization. But this brings pressure to conform and keep quiet. How are senior people supposed to know what’s really happening in their companies if people are scared to speak their truth?

In more than 30 years of conducting research, teaching, and consulting, we’ve found that experienced managers recognize all of these patterns. But they tend to shrug them off and say, “Of course, that’s what happens. Yes, it’s crazy. But get over it. That’s just how the organizational world is.”

Well, we disagree. We need to notice the managerial orthodoxy that has come to dominate organizational life since the 1980s. It’s all around us and we’ve taken it for granted, but we shouldn’t anymore. That view? In a period of unprecedented upheaval, the task of leaders is to drive change.

Unless leaders push, organizations won’t adapt fast enough to the changing environment. That’s why we need an “unholy trinity” of smart strategy, heroic leadership, and transformational change.

But every way of seeing is also a way of not seeing. Many of the costs and frustrations of organizational life today stem from being tied to just one way of thinking about, and working with, people and organizations. The conventional top-down, managerial efforts at change, however well-intentioned, keep producing unintended consequences.

Management and control are, of course, essential. But they’ve become an end in themselves, and not the means to something that matters. We deal with our fear of uncertainty and chaos by trying to make everything objective. By wishing away the subjective, we repress the emotions and instincts that make us effective, and deny the relationships and tacit understandings that make organizations successful.

And the managerial patterns have become a cloak that masks inept, irresponsible, and sometimes corrupt behavior and leadership. For example, a few years ago, Wells Fargo bank branches were put under severe pressure to achieve impossible quotas by cross-selling. This led to staffers creating multiple false accounts. The fallout tarnished the company and had significant effects on staff, customers, and some senior managers.

Early in 2018, the U.K.-based facilities management and construction services company Carillion collapsed. Examining the rapid demise of what was a £5 billion company, a British parliamentary report found that senior directors had “misguidedly self-assured leadership,” “aggressive accounting policies” that masked the deteriorating financial position, and an “unquestioning optimistic outlook.”

The report added that the Big Four auditors were a “cosy [sic] club incapable of providing the degree of independent challenge needed.”

Breaking Free of Bonkers

So how can we escape from organizational nonsense? In the face of such big problems, it seems logical to call for equally huge solutions. While a revolution in corporate governance, more sensible regulation, and compassionate capitalism sound nice, big solutions are a long way off and can trap us in wishful “if only” thinking, which is deeply disempowering.

In reality, we can take several real measures today. We need to take our experience seriously—our own and that of others—and recognize what life has taught us. To truly break free, we need to:

→ 1. Settle ourselves. Before an important meeting or encounter, we need to pause and think: What is most important to me right now? When do my feelings get the better of me and what does that tell me? When and how am I able to see things clearly? What can I influence and what do I need to accept? What am I prepared to do? And what will I not accept? We need to trust our instincts, which requires an appropriate level of self-examination, and we need to check them out with others, again and again.
→ 2. Recognize how much we depend on others. We don’t lead alone. To build community and make common cause, we must trust those around us (that, too, is likely to involve some tough conversations) and connect more widely. We need to be curious and frame good questions. We become ourselves by being part of something larger.
→ 3. Be fiercely pragmatic. If we’re clear about our values and intentions, we can afford to be pragmatic now, in this moment. We need to appreciate what’s working, what’s not working, and what needs to change. We need to focus on what we can do, here and now, and not burden ourselves with the impossible. We need to see the potential in every situation and the need to make space for experiments and discovery.

The good news: We’re not alone. Not even close. If we can get some perspective, we can see that we aren’t crazy. A new normal has taken hold of leadership and organizational life.

Now it’s time to tame it.

George Binney is a leadership coach and consultant at Ashridge Hult Business School who specializes in supporting doctors, scientists, lawyers, and other professionals. He’s also the coauthor of Living Leadership, Leaning into the Future, and Breaking Free of Bonkers: How to Lead in Today’s Crazy World of Organizations.

Philip Glanfield is a consultant and coach at Ashridge Hult Business School who specializes in helping individuals, teams, and organizations understand how conversations shape their leadership and impact. He’s the coauthor of Breaking Free of Bonkers.

Gerhard Wilke is an anthropologist, group analyst, and honorary fellow of the Royal College of General Practitioners. He’s the coauthor of Living Leadership, Leaning into the Future, and Breaking Free of Bonkers.