Threats to career can spark various defensive routines: impression management and survival behaviors. If these survival responses are unsuccessful, a culture of learned helplessness is likely to emerge. By James Warn
Impression management refers to those behaviors that individuals employ to protect the way they are perceived by significant others as well as to protect their own self-images. In direct dealings with the significant other, typical impression management consists of smiling, eye contact, opinion conformity and doing favors. Australians call this behavior “sucking up”.
Senior executives in the public sector need to present a public face to influence a wide constituency, including the media and interest groups. William Gardner and Bruce Avolio in a recent article, “The charismatic relationship: A dramaturgical perspective (The Academy of Management Review), suggest that protecting your public face depends on being able to provide accounts of incidents that minimise their apparent severity. Executives will attempt to construct their own self-serving account of any incident by denying that they were involved, by admitting only limited responsibility, or by trying to downplay the undesirability of the incident.
Organisational defence routines
Chris Argyris has labelled as “organisational defensive routines” those sets of survival behaviors that individuals or groups use to over-protect themselves.
Symptoms of these routines are: blaming others, low encouragement of inquiry, decreased confidence in colleagues, prevalence of biting humor, low internal commitment to decisions, horse-trading, covert empire building, political coalition building, bad-mouthing, and secret manoeuvring among senior executives.
Aspects of the organisational culture can predispose managers to survival routines such as:
- An obsession with action. Managers are rewarded for activity, implementing change and moving on, rather than for analysis.
- Process fixation. Lots of attention can be paid to improving processes at the local level without ever clarifying how those processes contribute to organisation-wide outcomes.
Survival routines can occur in any organisation, not just in the public sector, and they stop people from learning new actions by inhibiting open discussion, stifling learning, and preventing change.
The pattern of attributing failure to lack of ability, task difficulty, or bad luck, and believing that successes do not reflect effort or ability has been called “learned helplessness”. Work groups afflicted with learned helplessness are unlikely to increase their efforts and apply new strategies in the face of difficult problems because they believe that the causes for their failure (and success) are beyond their control.
Changing survival routines is difficult, but it can be achieved with strong direction from the top.
For a team to achieve high levels of performance, its members must actively ask questions, discuss errors, engage in experimentation and reflection, and seek external feedback.
The highest performing work teams have communication that can be described as honest, frank, and regular. Mistakes are analysed for how improvements might be made, and feedback positive and negative is considered helpful rather than critical.
High-performing work teams seek information from outside the group when they have problems.
Not embarrassing, rejecting or punishing someone for speaking up is essential if learning is to occur in teams. This shared sense of supportiveness, respect and trust among team members is called “psychological safety” and allows team members to take more risks, make errors or ask for help and, consequently, makes learning possible.
Teams are an espoused organisational form in the public sector. But pressure to engage in “impression management” tactics is likely to undermine their success. The Public Service Act 1999 defines a wider public accountability for public servants that extends beyond relationships with teams that are directly responsible to a minister.
However, the political realities of government mean that public servants may be on the receiving end of impression management from politicians protecting their own public face. These concerns are intensified in an election year when the prospect of a change of government is real. Already the media have carried stories of concerns over post-election hit-lists being prepared by the main political parties. In such uncertain times, impression management may be the name of the game.
How not to
How not to embrace the new economy
Maybe it is just a case of some people having too much spare time. But the prize for the least creative use of downtime goes to a bunch of Norwegian computer programmers from the town of Bergen. Instead of sending internet data down copper wires or fibre-optic cables, they set up an experiment in which they printed out data from one computer, attached it to a carrier pigeon’s leg, and then flew it across to another computer. “This is the way the internet actually works,”one of them told the press. “You output a packet and you put it in something, something that transports it. To the computer that sends that packet it actually makes no difference what the actual transport is. It could be a pigeon.” The question remains: why? “More or less because it was a fun thing to do and no one has done it before,” said Vegard Engen, one of the group’s organising members. Oh, really?
How not to embrace the world of crime
It is criminal just how incompetent some people can be in any line of work. Victoria Police files, for instance, are filled with candidates for the “Most Stupid Crook” title. Like the two burglars who broke into a suburban house only to discover that they hadn’t brought any masks. They went straight to the clothes line, took down the owner’s underpants, put them over their heads and threatened to kill the occupants if they did not hand over $10,000. The two then tried getting away in the owner’s Nissan Patrol but had trouble starting it. Eventually they got it going, and chugged away but not before crashing it in the driveway.
How not to run a committee
The prize for “Mismanagement by Committee” goes to the teachers committee appointed by the education department of the South African province of Gauteng. It has recommended banning William Shakespeare’s from state-school reading lists because they have unhappy endings, lack cultural diversity and do nothing to condemn racism and sexism. Julius Caesar was condemned because it “elevates men”. The Taming of The Shrew and Antony and Cleopatra have been described as undemocratic and racist. Hamlet, the committee said, was “not optimistic or uplifting”, while King Lear, regarded by many as the Bard’s greatest tragedy, had too much violence and despair. For some mysterious reason the committee did not express disapproval of Romeo and Juliet despite its unhappy ending, nor did it condemn the murderous insanity of Macbeth. The Merchant of Venice also slipped through.
The biggest turkey at this year’s Cannes Film Festival must have been the unforgettable film Crust. According to the program notes, it is a moving story about two men and a girl trying to make their fortune with a giant boxing shrimp. Runner up was the German production To Moscow With Ikea. The story was billed thus: “Two loyal Ikea employees meet and fall in love in a store in Berlin and decide to move to Moscow.”
The slithershanks* file
Slithershanks has discovered an odd management fact: the best way to make money is by telling other people your opinion about the best way to make money. That way, whether or not they make money is not really an issue, because you have already made money out of the fact that they want to (Make money, that is.)
Slithershanks is considering penning several exciting titles, including: Getting Higher Returns from Higher Returns, The Key to Wealth is To Have a Lot of It, Greed by Osmosis and What’s Wrong With Theft Anyway?
In the meantime, he recommends My Dad Thinks I Rob Banks, by Joseph Sammon, whose many gems include:
- The key indicators to watch are the figures of how shares trade over a specific period because you never make a trading decision on one day’s information alone.
- Broking houses get paid whether the client wins or loses.
- While trading shares as a business has many exciting rewards, I have found that it is also subject to some specific emotional negatives.
- Having read my book so far, you will possibly have read some things you always suspected.