Transforming Troubled Organizations

A friend is working on helping a large company clarify and implement their purpose.  To move the process forward she had to create authentic conversations across the hierarchy.   The authentic conversations allowed her  to gain an intimate view into the dynamics of the system, particularly the dynamics at the top.

She said, “The view of the top was not inspiring.  The senior team is not a team, it is a network of people engaged in self-interested political behaviors.  The patterns are very complex.  While each one is being paid millions of dollars, no one is a leader who has the vision or the capacity to transform the conflict into collaboration.  The conflict, like a disease, corrupts the collective mind and then spreads throughout the body.  The organization is in trouble.”

She pointed out another complication.  Multiple large consulting firms have submitted proposals to help the company and the company is seriously considering the proposals.  For several million dollars, they all offer similar processes.  They will put a few young experts into the company for three months.  The experts will engage in a technical analysis and submit a long report on the strategic and logistical things that need to be done.  Since the object of the consulting firms is to further embed themselves in the organization, they will likely not recognize, discuss, or deal with the political problems.

When a company is conflicted, large consulting firms offer an easy way out.  It is called collusion.  The consulting firms are not interested in change as they profess to be.  They are interested in making money.  When a particular project fails, the leaders can make a truthful claim, “We spent millions on this, we did the best we could, but the consulting firm let us down.”  The consulting firm wins, they get their money.  The executives win, they get to stay on, for a while.  The inability to lead, coupled with the costs of a large consulting firm, produce predictable long-term outcomes.

My friend was discouraged.  She asked, how she could unify an organization around an authentic higher purpose when the people at the top are governed by self-interest.

I shared two observations.  First, something important was occurring.  She was personally evolving.  Because of her increasing skill, she has been moving into bigger and bigger projects and spending more time with people at the top.  Because of the nature of the work, individuals are forced to tell her the truth about the interpersonal dynamics.  Each one does this from their own, biased point of view.  As she interacts with all of them, the biases wash out, she then sees reality more clearly than any of actors.

I told her that, while the case may seem unique, it is not.  In many organizations the people at the top act like they are in a play about a dysfunctional family.  The actors are all trapped in their roles.  No one likes what is happening in the play, but no one knows how to change the script, or wants to exert the effort it would take.  So, everyone goes on playing the same role in the same way they played it yesterday.

Here is the paradox.  The script is the culture, and the culture emerges from the interactions between the actors, particularly those at the top.  The leaders are daily creating the culture they do not like, and yet they must deny this.  They feel helpless and cannot stop.

The truth is they are not helpless.  They have the capacity to change the culture that is governing them, but to do this they must become purpose driven leaders.

My friend thought this made sense.  She wondered if she needed to advise them to drop the purpose project until they fixed the culture.  I pressed back hard.  I indicated that if the purpose was real, the purpose should be the driver of the culture change process.  If it was not real, it should be made real by becoming the driver of the culture change process.  Everything should start with the purpose.

She asked for some ideas.  I offered several suggestions.  First, I indicated that it is important that she not judge the people at the top.  They are not evil.  In fact, they are just like us.   All of us, whether we believe it or not, live from a theory of self-interested exchange.  The only difference between them and us is that they have been clever enough to get to the top.  If we judge them, they feel it, it triggers the ego, and we thus lock them into their existing patterns.  One reason the problem exists is that they (and we) are constantly judging one another.

Second, she needed to recognize their vulnerability while posturing.  They are in trouble, and they know it.    The theory, that has taken them to the top, is now destroying the whole and the whole includes them.  For an organization to flourish, conventional managers must transform into leaders of selfless, higher purpose, common vision, and shared strategy.  Unfortunately, the culture calls for them to pretend they are in control.  They believe that expressing authentic vulnerability would lead to disaster.

Because of the conventional culture they are creating in every interaction, it is not normal for one or more of them to become a leader.  Occasionally this does happen through crisis.  In rare cases it happens through a helpful, outside change agent.  But the change agent must do something rare.

The change agent must be the leader the other actors at the top are not.  The change agent must treat them with purpose, vision, strategy, and love.   If the change agent is transactional, that is, if the change agent is working for money, like the large consulting firms, the change agent is not going to bring about transformation.  To build a culture of trust and collaboration, the change agent must model integrity, courage, trust, and collaboration.

My friend wanted to know if I was interested in coming and helping her with the change process.  I responded that to be truly effective, she needed to do it herself, because she needed to lead the company.  She had to start with the highest purpose and stay with the highest purpose.  She needed to examine the big picture, trust her intuition, and become strong.  She had to invite the people to a genuine learning journey, and she had to join them in learning in real time.  In doing so, the purpose would lead to the birth of new leaders and a new culture.



  • What is self-interested, transactional theory, and how is it manifest in this case?
  • How is it manifest in your organization now?
  • What insights come in terms to transforming patterns of self-interested transactions?
  • How could you use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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