Every few days, or sometimes multiple times a day, a colleague or client of mine claims to be “allergic” to something at work. They’re not talking about peanuts or hay fever, though. They’re referring metaphorically to an idea or process that just doesn’t work for them. I’m not immune from this habit. Once in a while I’ll remark that some reasonably credible idea “gives me hives,” and no one bats an eye–they know exactly what I mean. I once worked for an organization that was collectively “allergic” to using round bullet points on documents; for some reason, though, square ones were okay.
In our experience studying work cultures, my colleague Richard Morgan-Jones and I have identified a range of organizational “allergies”–patterns of trouble at work that arise simply when people work together and come up with collective ways of doing things, not all of them particularly productive.
What’s your workplace allergic to?
Our clients seem to think intuitively about that problem through the metaphor of an allergy. Well-functioning work cultures–just like our bodies most of the time–know how to maintain their own health and homeostasis across a range of different experiences and environments. But organizations that lack resilience–those under industry pressures, for example, or that fail to meet rising demand or increased complexity–may reject something new and unfamiliar, and get done in by difference.
Like allergens (specks of pollen, cat dander, the natural chemicals in a cashew), the things that tend to really trip up a workplace are often small. Instead of attending to the big questions of how we work, we let little things get under our collective skin. And just like an allergy sufferer who resorts to nasal sprays and cough drops and ever-handy packets of tissues, our workplaces adopt coping mechanisms that aren’t exactly ideal.
But there’s a difference between coping with an allergic reaction and overcoming it. Faced with organizational allergies, many of us begin sending the message that, around here, it’s perfectly acceptable to be hypersensitive and reactive to this thing and insufficiently responsive to that one. In signaling that the organizational body is weak, we weaken it further.
Noticing is a crucial step in adapting to pressures like these–so that we might, as the writer adrienne maree brown advocates, deepen “our ability to transform ourselves under conditions of adversity, success, fear, or other emotional intensity paired with a deep and abiding sense of our ultimate purpose.” So lately, rather than declaring that something “gives me hives,” I’ve been pushing myself to notice how I respond to situations that make me uncomfortable: “I’m having a strong, negative reaction to X, and I want to understand why.”
Imagine that Company A is a large, global strategy firm with a reputation for headiness. It partners with Company B, a small, family-owned training agency that describes itself as “fueled by love.” Company A is “allergic” to the psychological models to which Company B subscribes, even though the former appreciates the latter’s emotionally driven services as something refreshingly different–just as long as those trainings take place offsite and not too often. For its part, Company B is “allergic” to strategy–even though its business processes stand to benefit from emulating (at least to a certain extent) its more cerebral client’s processes.
This isn’t a doomed marriage, though. In order to maintain equilibrium, both parties need to “inoculate” themselves with the ideas and practices that their respective organizations are initially allergic to. While the partnership might not last forever, it actually can thrive for a long time, with both Companies A and B winding up healthier–the one heartier, the other headier–in the long run, thanks to the collaboration. Every workplace can do much the same through their own partnerships, mutually boosting what psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey have called “immunity to change” and embracing complexity. After all, one treatment for allergies is repeated exposure to small amounts of allergens.
Here’s an easy way to start:
- Notice your own resistance. Pause to reflect on what’s causing you to resist a given idea or practice, and ask why it makes you uncomfortable. (You might not know the answer right away, but that’s fine.)
- Look for patterns. Are your coworkers allergic to the same things you are? Start to keep a running list of the all the times you hear someone in your workplace say (literally or figuratively), “We don’t do things that way here.” Chances are it’s an allergic reaction that reduces the psychological safety teams need in order to act decisively and take risks.
- Try one new thing every month that feels unfamiliar, and use your running list of workplace allergies as inspiration for things to experiment with. Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb uses the term “antifragile” to describe people and cultures “that thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors.” That’s what you’re going for.
But don’t hesitate to start with the small stuff. For my part, I’m glad to report that I’m no longer “allergic” to round bullet points. Our designer has created a PowerPoint template that integrates hard, bright lines with soft, rounded edges. More than just a small dose of workplace allergy inoculation, it’s a great visual metaphor for the environment we’re committed to creating.
Dana Bilsky Asher, PhD, is the founder of