Can Organizations Have EQ?

Thousands of studies demonstrate that leaders with higher EQ are more successful than those with average (or lower) EQ. But I’m not writing about that today.

I’ve found myself reflecting on the nature of organizations, thinking about my own experiences with them, experiences that clients who work for them have told me about, and stories my friends and family have related to me. I would enjoy hearing your thoughts about what follows.

Think about times when you’ve dealt with a large healthcare organization. Maybe you’ve helped shepherd a loved one through a serious illness. Maybe you yourself were the patient. Did the experience enhance your sense of yourself as a human being? Or did you find yourself feeling like a piece of meat, lost in a maw of processes, procedures, and awful communication, while the people working there did what their organization told them was necessary?

Think of the times you’ve called customer service numbers for large organizations, meandering around robot led telephone trees seemingly designed to prevent customer service! Why do these things happen? What makes organizations, built by actual people, behave in such inhuman ways?

The answer is that we can’t expect organizations to behave like humans. It is not in their nature. We might as well ask a tree, a bicycle, or a chainsaw to behave like a human. It simply isn’t in them. We’ve all seen organizations steamroll people, sometimes employees, sometimes customers, sometimes a community or planet, doing unnecessary damage. I’m reminded (a little) of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

An organization is primarily dedicated to its own survival and success, usually but not always defined in terms of money. For the most part, an organization, in the most cost effective and efficient way possible, is dedicated to the survival and success of the people who work there, its customers, and other stakeholders, only as a means to an end: its own well-being. If the organization is better served by inhumane rather than humane behaviors, inhumane usually wins.

Yet, I imagine that you can think of times when you have dealt with organizations and found the experience affirming. A doctor or nurse who worked for that organization may have connected with you in a very human way, which is apparently happening in a lot in ICUs these days. You’ve probably talked with customer service people on occasion who were eager to help you “work the system” to get what you needed. Do these experiences call into question my statement about organizational nature? Are these just the exceptions that prove the rule?

While organizations can’t relate in a human way because, though created by humans, they are not human, any more than a building created by humans is human, people within organizations can behave like humans. To do so they have to get outside of organization “think.”

People and organizations are not synonyms. People may build organizations, but before long, the organization takes on a life of its own. (Here comes HAL again.) Those people who won your heart in the hospital or on the phone have either not fully surrendered their humanity and their judgment to their organizations, or they work for an organization where the leaders encourage human behavior. In either case, they are free to behave in a natural human way.

The distinction between organizations and the people who work in them may have important implications for what coaches do. It seems to me that a big part of our mission may be to help people in organizations not get caught up in inhuman organization “think.” We can help people remember their humanity, i.e., to be dedicated to the welfare of the people in the organization and the people the organization serves. In other words, we need to help people not over-identify with their employers, but rather to differentiate themselves, recognizing that they are separate, with interests that overlap but are also different from those of the organization.

To draw your attention to something all of you know, but which may fit here, humans have two competing drives: to be an individual and to be part of a group (sometimes the organization that employs them). A good bit of our work may involve helping clients navigate this seeming contradiction.

The task is not simple, for several reasons.

  1. The people we coach depend on those organizations for income (i.e., food and shelter). When people accept money and other rewards from an organization, it is all too easy for that organization to become an authority figure.
  2. There is reciprocity. That is, organizations and the people attached to them (employees, customers, other stakeholders) owe something to each other. But it’s still important to maintain one’s individual identity to avoid the danger of losing it to the organization and then behaving inhumanly.
  3. Organizations resist human nature. Humans are messy. Organizations like neatness. (See Warren Bennis’ Why Leaders Can’t Lead)

People who get caught up in organization “think” may well become wealthy. The organization will reward them, but only in the ways that organizations have at their disposal, such as money and position. Organizations can’t cuddle you at night, nor can they be a friend when one is needed. Humans need to connect with other humans in human ways or they die from the inside out. (If you’re thinking, “But Dana, I worked for an organization and it was great! My boss was like a father to me! The camaraderie in the office was fantastic! We took good care of our customers!” then you’re one of the lucky ones who worked for an organization that was led by people who insisted on retaining their humanity, and who encouraged their employees to do the same.)

And in case you’re thinking, “Well, Dana, if you work for somebody, you have to follow their rules, you don’t get to decide!” you’re right, to some degree. But I suspect that those organizations who are led by and employ a large percentage of people who successfully maintain their separate identities may be less dogmatic, more flexible, and thus far more adaptable to changing conditions. They may be more likely to retain employees when everybody else is losing theirs. They may be more likely to not just survive but have true organizational health. So it may turn out to be a win/win situation when leaders and employees insist on being human. Then, the well-being of both the organization and its humans is seen to.

Leaders of organizations like this will need you, their coaches, to help them remember how to be human under the pressure of organizational demands. A lot of being human is aided by strong EQ skills. EQ humanizes the world.

OK – I’ve put this out pretty dogmatically. I hope and expect other dogs to show up and help me (us?) think this through.

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