Wipe Out Organizational Viruses to Speed Change Efforts




Today’s topic is viruses.  Not the kind from which I am currently suffering, with my stuffy head and sluggishness, too uncomfortable and enfeebled to follow through on all my ambitious plans for work and play with anything approaching my usual energy.  But the kind that all too likely infects the organization that you are currently trying to rally.  You know that an organization filled with smart, well-trained people playing a high-stakes competitive game should be able to move with greater speed and agility, but too often it just doesn’t seem to happen.

We use this metaphor of “organizational virus” not just during flu season, but any time even excellent leaders encounter resistance to change.  Despite a great plan for action – you have assigned strong leaders with clear goals and unambiguous direction; you have seemingly secured buy-in from the key implementers; you have been careful to organize decisions and actions into bite-sized chunks, etc, etc, etc – sometimes the existing organizational inertia is just too hard to budge.  You might hear grumblings like “that’s not how we do it around here” or “who’s idea was this – not mine – not gonna do it.”  You might sense that people who should be behaving like colleagues and collaborators are instead competing for resources and upper level approval. 

What you likely have is one or more of the many forms of organizational viruses.  The fact is that organizational viruses creep into company cultures with such stealth and cunning that even the leaders in the company fail to recognize them as threats – and then get ambushed by the little traitors when they try to initiate change.  Left unattended, these dysfunctional memes will almost always thwart the best laid plans for change.  They might act out by having people focus on the rearview mirror when they should looking broadly into the future through the windshield, or perhaps by placing the concerns of their personal turf above the needs of the larger organization. Or maybe by only pretending to get on board a change initiative.

As a leader, you can’t let that happen.

Companies that fail based on an inability to execute are often infected with debilitating viruses.  Here is a short list of such microbes that my colleagues Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood have identified (you will find more on the website for our book The Leadership Code):

·         Over-inform: Tell everybody and then have a meeting. We make sure everyone has been touched before we meet which slows down our ability to be decisive.


·         Have it my way: We don’t learn much from each other; not invented here syndrome.

·         Saturday morning team captain: We enjoy criticizing everything, even before it happens.

·         False positive: We feign agreement, we suppress our real thoughts, or we look for goals that we think will please everyone. Any of these creates passive resistance.

·         Hard on the people instead of the problem: We attack a colleague personally rather than attack the problem.  In other words, we find scapegoats.

·         Caste: We value people and opinions by grade or function rather than competence or real contribution.



How do we create new attitudes and new behaviors to counteract these insidious viruses?  To create new patterns requires that these viruses be identified, named and discussed. To identify them is easy: we frequently ask groups to name the three major viruses that get in the way of organizational success, and they have no problem coming to quick consensus.  Organizing lasting solutions takes more hard work and resolution, but can be done.

When we can find a way to speak about these issues and discuss them without hurling blame but with some degree of detachment, we as leaders can often resolve them and make progress.

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Happy holidays,