Leadership failure causes “systemic” failure

The news cycles are buzzing with stories condemning “systemic racism” in police services and elsewhere with about as much understanding of “systemic” as there is about why the next zombie apocalypse will occur. So let’s unpeel this tearful onion of confusion.

We of course are guided along the way by our sage-like leaders. In Canada, our premier heads of provinces huddled together, agreeing that “Hate has no place in Canada and will not be tolerated” (see National Post, June 27, 2020). But then Canada’s dapper Prime Minister has to admit that while he of course wanted to include the phrase “systemic racism” no consensus on the wording could be achieved.

Nationally, the head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Brenda Lucki enjoyed a very unlucky day trying to stumble her way through defining “systemic racism” to a parliamentary committee (Canada’s weaker version of a U.S. Senate Committee). In the end she is nationally reported as describing it as “an obstacle course for tall people” and “women that are not six-feet tall.” Huh? And in Vancouver, home of sandals, sand, and serial protest movements we have the headline “Vancouver Police Department Chief, Mayor butt heads over systemic racism in police.”

And so it goes. But the reality is that “systemic” racism, sexism, ageism (add you own “ism”) comes at the end of a long trail of evidence (see the graphic). Let’s follow that evidence to the real culprit  of “systemic racism” whose definition appears to be befuddling politicians, various activists, and denizens of social distancing.

7 systemic anything

We start at the scene of the crime, the actions of people. Here is where we easily find recent examples of the label “systemic racism.” Such actions are a result of attitudes and behaviors. Attitudes are hard to change but behaviors can be quickly changed with powerful incentives and disincentives that are part of various systems.

The quality of these organizational systems shows up in the workplace climate. This is how employees feel about their job, their morale and their emotional wellness. Poor communications, a lack of clear responsibilities, and certainly an absence of strong and fair accountability for rules, regulations, and behavior create a toxic workplace where prejudices flourish, “bad apples” turn to vinegarish relations, and disrespect is okay.

Following the evidence we find that the workplace climate is determined by the quality of various systems. These systems and processes shape the nature and effectiveness of hiring practices, training, communication, responsibility, accountability and how to get along. When these systems are ineffective, when they are outdated, rigid, and slow to change we have what I call systemsclerosis or the hardening of the arteries of effective organizational life.

But organizational systems have one key job. And that is to give life to the organizational structure which can be hierarchical, flat, centralized, decentralized, command-and-controlish or collaborative and cooperative. And now our search for evidence brings us to organizational cuture, the metaphorical crime boss of of “systemic” (fill in the blank).

If the organizational culture is very old, deep, traditional, and embedded it is hard to evolve and change. But be alert. Younger corporations with goals and purposes laser-focused on profits and competiveness rather than employees are also loathe to change. Whether old or new their structures will conform to the culture. If the structures are rigid then the systems that give those structures life will simply be the progeny of the influential culture in turn fostering a stormy workplace climate.

When the culture, structure, systems and climate are out-of-step with what society expects of an organization and are not attuned to the changing expectations of the majority of employees, then we end up with workplaces in conflict, employees acting without accountability and behaviors and actions that offend the changing values of a changing world. We end up with bozos doing dumb things and label it “systemic” behavior.

We need to investigate “systemic” deeper. We need to understand that it is leaders who determine the quality of the organic, inter-connected state of organizational culture, structure, systems, climate, and actions. Leadership at every level. Within the senior levels of an organization, within the quality of supervision, within the self-leadership of all employees, and with all of us showing thoughtful and collective leadership in how to advance the speed of internal organizational environments as they struggle to adapt to much more rapidly accelerating external environments of change.

To just toss around “systemic” as a hot potato is simply a flagrant abrogation of leadership.

p.s. I have managed to have my research on this topic just published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Change Management, appearing in a forthcoming edition.


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