Organization & Leadership Consulting

The Skills of a Turnaround Artist, Part 2

Cultural Anthropologist

The leader who desires to turn around a dysfunctional organization has no easy task. Nicolo Machiavelli was likely not the first observer to note this, but he forever captured the heart of the difficulty when he wrote:

“And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the reformer has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.”

In spite of the inherent hazards of leading an effective reform, it is still a worthy endeavor in many cases. Sure, a goodly number of dysfunctional organizations should be left to die in their own time. Others however, are worth saving. This will require a quite unique skill set on the part of the leader. In an earlier post I argued that reformers need to be ‘Strategists’. In other words, like a Chess Master, they need an effective opening gambit, a dynamic middle game, and a powerful endgame all strategically laid out move by move as the opponent responds and rallies. After this first skill in the reformer’s toolkit, the second is that of a ‘Cultural Anthropologist.’

Think of anthropology and you are predictably likely to conjure up images of a primitive tribal group in some far off land. Since anthropology is the study of humanity in social groups you would be partially right, albeit limited in your scope. Observe any grouping of people and study the culture they create and you doing anthropology.

Reformers must acquire the skills of a cultural anthropologist because the most pernicious obstacles to organizational reform lie deeply in the realm of the group’s cultural encoding. Why is demeaning behavior on the part of boss tolerated? Why do some individuals escape punishment? Why is conflict avoided? Why are people afraid to speak the truth in meetings? The root causes to such organizational symptoms often lie within the culture of the organization. Frequently the origins of such behaviors can be traced back to the founder(s).

Leadership Tools

Leaders are charged with shaping culture and reformers must have in their tool belts the anthropological skills to diagnose and surgically excise dysfunctional culture. This will require thoughtful examination over time to ferret out such issues as: 1) what is the payoff for the organization in exchange for tolerating the dysfunction; 2) how healthy are the individuals who lead the group; 3) why does the organization shrink back from changing the dysfunction and moving towards a healthier system.

Archimedes famously said: “Give me a lever long enough and I can move the world.” Reformers simply must have the long lever of anthropological tools to move dysfunctional organizational cultures towards health and productivity.


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