Places of Refuge

I happened on a copy of “Good Communication That Blocks Learning” by master business theorist, Chris Argyris. Originally published in Harvard Business Revew in 1994, I wanted to see if I still agreed with Argyris’s perspective about how organizational leaders impede the empowerment of their managers and employees. While I found that my respect for his insights was still very high, I was also disquieted by the article. Only fourteen years old, and written in the middle of the Total Quality Management movement, the article gives a clean, no-nonsense assessment of the old paradigm that organizational improvement should be based on employees “educating management” about problems and management responding with fixes. No doubt about it, Argyris is on point with his observation that this is an old and ultimately disempowering pattern based on the dysfunctional, parent/child mindset of employee satisfaction surveys. But I also felt some distress with Argyris’s judgment that leaders should focus less on solving the problems that surfaced in the surveys than on questioning employees about their own behavior, especially challenging the employees’ own accountability: why hadn’t they brought up these issues before? Why hadn’t they done something about these problems in advance of the survey?

These observations by Argyris threw me back on my own deep beliefs that “empowerment,” however you wish to define that term, is best served not by shifting accountability, per se, but by sharing it and by defeating the underlying power dynamics and patterns that prevent genuine collaboration, particularly the belief systems surrounding risks and why people don’t take them. I believe Argyris may have missed the single, most crucial aspect of why people at every level of organizations do not take risks to bring up the problems they observe. This has to do with a particularly negative experience of exposure, shame, embarrassment, guilt, shunning and/or dismissal, the mother lode of personal isolation called “career suicide” that stands behind our avoidance. As I read the article, I thought to myself: what Argyris is asking employees to do is absorb this nightmare, which is very close to the experience of breaking — and paying for — a powerful societal taboo.

As civilized individualists, we tend to think we don’t have a system of taboos in our culture, but in fact we do, and we hold onto them at a very personal, often subconscious or at least “undiscussable,” level. Precisely because we are individualists, what we experience when we face breaking such a rule is incredibly powerful and “interior.” It is literally a cliff, and we don’t jump from it willy-nilly.

A taboo is a strong social prohibition or ban relating to any area of human activity or social custom declared as sacred and forbidden; breaking of the taboo is usually considered objectionable or abhorrent by society.

New World Encyclopedia

The word, taboo, has Polynesian origins; comes from the old kapu system where making the wrong gesture results in death, and there are many wrong gestures.

The experience of breaking an American social taboo is what Argyris’ article lacked for me, and in this way loses its realism. In American business culture, there is a very strong taboo about communications that prevents such things as pointing out directly to leaders the problems caused by them, publicly embarrassing them or exposing them personally. Indirect communications — as in talking about leaders behind their backs — is the process by which we cope with this very strong taboo. Occasionally, the conversation in the background confirms a broadly shared group perception and results in the leader’s loss of credibility, and this can be so powerful as to cause the leader to be fired or be forced to resign. This is the other side of the taboo — the power given to the perceptions of those behind the scenes. As my mother used to tell me, “A person can be killed as effectively with words as with a knife.”

It’s important to understand just how powerful social taboos are and how devastating the consequences for breaking them. A far more serious penalty is involved than merely taking an “interpersonal risk” that doesn’t work out. The experience can come close to a kind of social death; at least death in the form of being discredited and separated and then left being to oneself with a nearly indelible internal stamp. Nevertheless we persist in believing — and I think Argyris perpetuates this — that it is fundamentally the employees who do not speak up who are the real barrier to their own empowerment. However, in my opinion, this is like asking for career suicide as a means of solving the dilemma.

It seems to me a better answer is in learning how to remove the power of the taboo. That comes, I believe, through the process of being cleansed of it. There is much to this process both from the side of the messenger and the side of the leader who receives information about his or her involvement in the organization’s problems. But perhaps I can give an analogy.

Recently, I was in Hawaii on the Big Island and visited The Place of Refuge, Pu’u Honua O Honaunau. In ancient Hawaiian society, if you broke the kapu and the penalty was death the only way to save yourself was to elude your pursuers and reach the nearest puuhonua, or place of refuge. This could mean a dangerous flight over treacherous lava fields or swimming with the sharks to get to the sacred place. There, the priests might cleanse and forgive you your crime. Once forgiven, you could then return to the community.

I’m not suggesting we establish “places of refuge” in organizations (I think some HR Departments have tried that and it doesn’t work). Rather, I believe we need to make the whole organization a kind of refuge. By this I mean that the organization really functions as a community so that each person loses the fear of the taboo. One of the most “leaderly” things a person can do is bring people into an environment that acknowledges we all need each others’ help, that we all make mistakes, and that we all have failings and raw parts of ourselves to keep working on. This seems simple enough at one level — that we all have things to work on — but it is also a complex vision precisely because it requires us to give up simple solutions and simple blame. What I’ve observed is that when people are given a chance to move into their own energy for growth and development and this is modeled by leaders, there is little need to be concerned about forcing accountability. People want and will take responsibility but it will be indistinguishable from the leaders themselves taking responsibility since it will be about the formation of a responsible community. People, no matter what their position, will engage in processes of self-examination when they can find both an outer and inner sanctuary. The challenge is finding them both — in our relationships with one another and within ourselves.

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