Pathological culture


I’ve been really enjoying Gene Kim’s recent interviews with Ron Westrum (Part 1 & Part 2).

There were two things that really struck me in part 1:

  1. Pathological cultures make people ill – we know this from the Whitehall study; but that’s fine for the bosses, because it’s not them who are getting ill, it’s their behaviour that’s making their minions ill.

    Ron (00:45:59): … “Every day when my father drove to work he would get sick on the way to work.” That’s what living in a pathological environment is like. Because basically, the pathological organization is oriented toward pleasing the people at the top. It is what they want, what they need, and so forth, that drives the organization.

    Ron (00:46:46): … But in the Whitehall Study what they discovered is, the chance of having a heart attack went down every level you went up. People on top had the least heart attacks, people on the bottom had the most heart attacks. Now, consider that basically everybody in Britain, in principle at least, has the same health system. So what was the difference between the top and the bottom? And the answer was power.
  2. Organisational justice‘:

    Ron (01:31:56): Well, first of all, the good leaders are honest. So if somebody does something, they get a reward for it. In organizations where the leader isn’t honest, somebody else who didn’t do it will get a reward for it, all right? That destroys your sense of organizational justice, when the wrong person gets recognized for something, and shows that the people on top don’t know what’s going on.

Part 2 gets deeper into the idea of ‘technical maestros’ as leaders, with some excellent case studies of organisations who had such leadership and conquered, but also organisations who had such leadership, and chose a different direction, then failed badly.

What follows are some observations about pathological culture part of the Westrum model (from being inside one long enough to know):

  • Power oriented – the bosses are in their high positions because they know best – everybody else is failing, because they’re not correctly doing what they’re being told.
  • Low cooperation – because what’s the point – doesn’t help with following orders.
  • Messengers “shot” – because the message they carry is subversive and wrong; an unwelcome distraction that might turn people away from doing what they’re told.
  • Responsibilities shirked – because the high command is responsible for everything.
  • Bridging discouraged – again, a distraction from following orders.
  • Failure leads to scapegoating – the only reason for failure was not following orders correctly, therefore you’ve failed as a ‘resource’.
  • Novelty crushed – because it’s just another distraction from getting on with the dear leader’s perfect plan.

NB I’m being very particular in avoiding the word ‘leader’ here for people who aren’t actually leaders. We very often use ‘leader’ for people in positions of authority who are commanders rather than leaders:

From Jon Smart’s DOES 2020 presentation

The people at the top of pathological cultures aren’t just reaping the rewards of their power, they’re also certain that they know the one true way to success, and the only thing thwarting them is the useless minions failing to follow orders correctly. The underlings are the ones causing the problems, and they should be made to suffer for it – hence the health (and mental health) issues for everybody down the pyramid.

Furthermore, command and control is just a really lazy approach to doing things, whether it’s running a company or running a country. And lazy begets more laziness, which is why such bosses are always chasing after ‘one neat trick’ rather than doing the hard work of empowerment. Unfortunately there are two entire industries of consultants and analysts pandering to the shortcut market, which is why we see so much cargo culting of things done in successful places (e.g. Spotify model etc., covered well by Andrew Blain in his recent ‘The Usual Suspects (Operating Model anti-patterns)‘).

2 Responses to “Pathological culture”

  1. 1 B Preece

    Hi Chris,

    I’ve experienced a pathological culture first hand – on an IBM Consullting contract in the public sector. The experience almost entirely matches the insight of Ron Westrum and everything you’ve highlighted above.

    Fundamentally I boil it down to an absence of leadership (including technical leadership), insight, and engineering change. Managers (In this specific case, at least 3 tiers of IBM Management) protecting their interests. Their motivations could be about preserving power and profit but that’s just me trying to guess why they perpetuate the management culture.

    Double speak was common, including telling the client one thing and doing another. The pandemic slightly worsened the situation because of the geographies of home/office working, and challenges in communication.

    The pathological culture is AFAIK alive and well on that IBM Consulting account in 2021, and probably unthreatened as we go into 2022…

  1. 1 Psychological Safety Newsletter #44 | Psychological Safety

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