Treating Emotional Viruses
Emotional viruses spread through IT
organizations faster than computer viruses, are longer lasting, and are harder to control.
Here are some recent examples that I have experienced:
A software integration project was hopelessly out of control--talented people quitting, expensive consultants finger pointing, rumors rampant, the project schedule a joke. The CIO accused others and hid problems from his superiors. He didn't want to be perceived as a failure. VPs referred to the CIO as a paranoid idiot. Within 9 months the CIO was out.
A growing Internet company paid dearly for a competitor in order to own critical technology. To protect this sensitive knowledge, the newly acquired employees were placed in a secured work area. The resulting isolation created suspicion, hampering teamwork between old and new employees.
A division president frustrated by executive resistance, used quick temper and extreme sarcasm, to equate loyalty with conformity, silencing everyone in his presence. When he suggested a re-organization, everyone was quickly on board. Then several key players quit. His response, "you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs." When employees complained about policy changes, they were told "if you don't like it, leave." Within 12 months, the division was in the red, many of the executives were fired, and the division went through a painful downsizing.
Workers Most Vulnerable
How about the enormous success of Despair.com, which sells demotivating posters over the Web? Instead of inspiration, these posters deliver messages such as "Not all pain is gain" over a face contorted by a knockout punch. In the Wall Street Journal, promoter E.L. Kersten reported that failure, mediocrity, burnout, and apathy are his most successful themes.
Consider D. S. Levine's Disgruntled.com, which offers a Turkey Roast, where you and I can write about our worst bosses. Disgruntled put a different spin on Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken Jr.'s record of 2,632 consecutive baseball games played with no absenteeism. Rather than viewing Ripken's record as a "staggering feat of endurance," as the New York Times did, or as evidence of personal discipline or dedication, Disgruntled labeled it a form of mental sickness. Disgruntled heralded the fact that absenteeism due to mental health, reached the highest level in seven years. A survey showed absenteeism up 25 percent last year, increasing corporate loss by 32 percent.
Wyatt and Co., a human resource consulting organization, surveyed 1,005 corporations participating in downsizing:
Emotional viruses become really infectious when exposed to challenging projects, reorganization, reengineering, and downsizing. Organizations without a healthy immune system find recovery from these infections difficult.
Emotional viruses spread by means of a cynical joke, a bitter complaint, hostile treatment or careless disregard. While some people are chronic carriers of emotional viruses, others become infected due to poor emotional management habits. The consequences are poor teamwork, loss of creativity, diminished commitment, and declining productivity. Managers and workers alike tend to blame their problems on the market, the competition, the customers, their leadership, the economy, etc. not realizing that emotional viruses are the underlying cause of failure.
Some victims rely on "band-aid" solutions that don't address real issues. I know a company where top managers are mostly successful sales executives, and their approach to dealing with emotional virus is to organize high-energy presentations. The intention is to help employees concentrate on the good news and positive future, and stop preoccupation with what went wrong in the past. Unfortunately, this approach does not allow people to acknowledge their infection, identify root causes, and begin sustainable treatment. They get an hour of feel-good pitches by the senior executives, then go back to their cynicism and despair. The executives then feel that their good intentions have been wasted, and vow never to do it again. Discouragement caused by unsuccessful, poorly conceived efforts reinforces the obstacles to recovery.
In most cases, the individuals and organizations in these situations are unaware of the tools and techniques for diagnosing and treating emotional virus.
This first step may be so difficult that a skilled professional is required. Tools that promote anonymity in responding to diagnostic questions are helpful in overcoming hesitation, embarrassment, or intimidation.
Training in emotional management, empathic communication, and win-win problem resolution is required once the viruses have been named. A skilled facilitator working with both leaders and workers in small groups can teach effective methods for addressing their infections head-on. These efforts should be augmented by well-documented case studies of common organizational viruses. Case studies provide senior leadership with insight, as well as bottom-line benefits.
Individual coaching helps leaders and workers acknowledge emotions, postpone judgement, delay reaction, shift perception and choose a response more appropriate to core values.
Consistent practice of emotional management, empathic communication and win-win problem resolution skills will restore organizational health. A clear commitment by the leadership, supported by internal practice groups, and led by one or more trained coaches, will sustain new, healthy habits, and develop the immune system.
A well-designed program consists of the appropriate diagnoses, senior leadership support, effective training programs and competent coaches. This is the critical difference between organizations that thrive and those that die a slow and painful death. If you think you can't afford to address the emotional viruses in your life or organization, perhaps you should ask yourself "can I afford not to?"
©2012 Copyright, Wilfred Jarvis Institute. All rights reserved.