Lying in Wait

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on April 11th, 2013 in Thoughts & Commentary

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virusChickenpox wasn’t much fun as a kid and I understand that shingles is excruciating.   And, contrary to the myth, you apparently can get shingles more than once.  After chickenpox the virus goes dormant; after round one of shingles it goes dormant; round two comes along, you get the picture.

I’ve been thinking a lot about  these illness that inflict our bodies, respond to treatment, yet never really leave us and thus, given the right set of conditions, attack again.  Why, you might ask, am I spending time thinking about such a disheartening topic, especially because I am not at all involved in the field of medicine?  Because the same thing happens in organizations.

Recently, I’ve been struck by how many people are asking me for help with situations that were thought to have been solved quite some time ago; and, now, they are back, not like your worst nightmare, but actually your worst nightmare.  What is it about our organizations that don’t let go? That don’t truly rid themselves of the sources of their illnesses, but prefer instead to mimic the squirrel planning for its winter, buries those seeds of future disasters, protecting them as if they were their very lifeblood, to bring out in times of … what?

Two situations, very different:

One, a founder still involved in the organization though no longer the executive director (mistake number one!), once running amuck, then controlled and calmed.  Board members who couldn’t bear saying no to the founder, couldn’t bear any constraints on the founder left; those who remained understood the importance of holding the founder accountable, of putting systems in place by which he would have to abide.  In other words, he would have to play by the same rules as everyone else in the organization; no exceptions.  A strong executive director put those systems in place, turned the organization around, reputation saved, all was good with the world.  Problem solved.  Until…

Turns out the virus never completely left the body, and now it is back, and a flare up has occurred.  The founder is throwing off his “chains” and too many on the board are allowing him to do so, allowing him to ignore the requests and admonitions of the executive director, the demands of some board members.  Some board members have already quit because of the unwillingness of the founder to play by the rules—rules puts into place for the protection of the mission, the organization, all the players—and the inability to make him do so.  (Fire him, you say?  Seriously?)  Quite different from last time when board members quit because they couldn’t stand to see their precious founder treated as if he were one among many.    But the impact is the same:  the organization is at risk—risk of loosing the smart stewards and protectors, the ones who have the best interests of the mission, organization and clients front and center, and the ones who will do what is best for the whole, not for one person.

The second situation is a board member who decided to micromanage the executive director and staff.  Happened five years ago, is happening again not and both times the stirrer of the pot is the one in the position of treasurer.  Both times, the treasurer began demanding all kinds of ridiculous data, spending increasing amounts of time in the office, giving orders to staff and overruling the executive director.  And then, both times it was “the executive director must go.”

Both times, the treasurer wanted the executive director’s job.  And both times, the treasurer was able to get one other member of the executive committee to side with him and stir up the rest.  The difference, though, is that this time the board president has the backbone to address the situation straight on and call the treasurer and other board member to task and end the situation—but not before staff left and the executive director is considering doing so.  But even last time, after things were eventually resolved, with the aid of outside help, things calmed down; the organization seemed to have been cleansed of the virus.

And here we are years later in each situation and these organizations find themselves in a recurring problem cycle.  Not quite Ground Hog Day, but for the few who were there both times, there is a sad similarity.  I suspect it is because the stories have malingered within the organization’s culture, been passed down from one cohort of board members to the next, one cohort of staff members to the next.  “Oh, you remember the time when …?”   It doesn’t take much to revitalize a dormant seed.  These organisms never completely purged themselves of the problem; what remained was just enough to revive.

So what is the solution to preventing a recurring problem cycle from latching on to our organization.   Pediatricians recommend to parents that they throw out their child’s toothbrush 24 hours after he has started antibiotics for strep throat and to make sure everyone washes their hands.  Throwing out the fomenter from the organization might be the sagest of advice available.







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