One of the great detectives created by the mystery writer, Agatha Christie, was Miss Marple, an older woman (probably not that old to me these days, but never mind) from the little English village of St. Mary’s Mead.
She solved cases by noting the similar personalities between crime suspects and people from her small town. So if Sir Harold, the financier, reminded her of George the butcher who always put his thumb on the scale, then maybe there was something hinky about Sir Harold’s business practices.
I’ve tried to use the Miss Marple technique in many different circumstances, including the workplace.
Of course, personalities aren’t supposed to come into play at work, but we know they do. In fact, one time when personalities really show themselves is when organizations are in trouble.
Perhaps you’ve spent some time on deck in a sinking ship, or huddled in the bunker with besieged colleagues. It’s not pretty or pleasant, although you do learn a lot.
One of the things I hope I’ve learned through my experience in troubled organizations is how to recognize the interplay between personalities and company distress. Here are a few situations I’ve seen a time or two:
Change in mission disguised as pragmatism – In this scenario, an organization has an opportunity to do something which might make it prosper, but which requires significant changes in organizational culture, structure and activities.
What to watch out for: Beware of the self-proclaimed “realist” who advocates full-speed ahead while personalizing exploration of the issue. Her need to win in this situation can trump common sense or collegiality.
Looking for a mission vs. looking for a scapegoat – Successful businesses always have a mission, even if it’s not formally stated. But a business without a sense of what it does and who it serves and why is not likely to do well.
What to watch out for: An organization leader who cares deeply about the company, but can’t tell you exactly what it does. Since he doesn’t see this as a problem, the organization’s difficulties must be due to something or someone else…
Looking for purity at the expense of collaboration – Sometimes when organizations face difficulties, everyone bands together to help the company make it through. Other times, they all fall on each other with knives. Lines are drawn and if people can’t agree on everything, they resolve to agree on nothing.
What to watch out for: Zealots who fan the flames of inter-office disagreements like a holy war. To them it is, so if you don’t want to get burned at the stake, be careful.
Sometimes I ask myself which came first in these situations – the personality problems or the organizational troubles?
I’ve decided it doesn’t matter. When I feel like I’ve seen this before, I start making alternative plans.
What do you do?
by Danielle Dresden