Anyone who has worked in an organization for longer than a few months has heard the expression “drinking the company Kool-Aid.”
Even though Kool-Aid isn’t as popular as it used to be and may well end up with the same fate as Twinkie, the comparison still resonates. To drink the Kool-Aid means you believe in the organizational culture so much that you are willing and able to spout its principles without thinking, and that you ignore any evidence supporting the notion your company's way of doing things isn't working as well as it could.
This is dangerous.
I once worked with a small company that was convinced its new accounting practices were revolutionary in the industry. Management spent a lot of money to get an automated system up and running, and drilled employees mercilessly on how to use it properly. The company got a great deal of incredible PR around the initiative. The system was easy to use! It saved tons of time! And new accounting was just the first step in a phased cultural initiative that would leverage state-of-the-art technology to free employees up to do what they did best!
There was only one problem. It didn’t work—at least not precisely enough. It turned out that some of the complex accounting issues the company faced required a human brain to sort. But the company was so busy touting its brilliance that it took numerous customer complaints to realize what was happening.
When you have a terrific culture or are in the midst of changing your culture to become terrific, it’s easy to overlook data that doesn’t support what you’re trying to do—and that’s where things get risky. A healthy organizational culture must be in touch with its thinking and have the ability to make rational decisions.
Fortunately, author Larry Bloom, who wrote The Cure for Corporate Stupidity: Avoid the Mind-Bugs that Cause Smart People to Make Bad Decisions, shares some recommendations to this effect on the Smart Business Network. Before proceeding with major decisions involving your culture, ask yourself these questions:
Do we have sufficient information to make this decision?
Larry Bloom: A human tendency is to present and/or accept data as sufficient for a decision even if it does not completely frame the situation in a balanced fashion, as long as it supports the decision we subconsciously want to make.
What makes us confident that information is accurate?
LB: Good decisions are based on clearly defined, reliable, factual, precise and fair information. We may unknowingly confuse unverified information with fact, see patterns that are not real, or experience a reflex-like rejection of data simply because it contradicts existing norms.
How do individual beliefs color the decision?
LB: When making a major decision, it’s normal to consider our own point of view, desires, values, principles and emotional connections. But this may lead us to draw conclusions and make decisions based on limited, unfair or misleading personal interpretations of information. In other words, we can get so locked into our beliefs that we are unable to see the issue from other rational points of view.
What is the influence of the group involved with this decision?
LB: Within the context of any group, bureaucracy, power structure and vested interests are involved in the decision-making process. Individuals who are more advanced in the hierarchy may have more power, but their word should not necessarily be gospel. When a change impacts the whole organization, a variety of points of view should be considered, including those that come from lower on the totem pole.
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Alexandra Levit is a former nationally syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success. Money Magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.