The Super-Reasonable Organizational Coping Pattern

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Super-reasonable organizational coping emphasizes Context, usually through a devotion to "objectivity" and at the expense of human considerations or considerations of relationship. Super-reasonable coping can lead an organization to adopt self-destructive strategies simply because they make sense for the "bottom line," or because they emphasize some specific organizational priorities, even if they're self-destructive. This is a portion of an essay on Organizational Coping Patterns — patterns of organizational behavior relative to stressful, challenging situations.

When an organization adopts a Super-reasonable coping stance in a given situation, it's taking context into account, but at the same time it might be failing to take account of its Self and any Other person or organization in that situation. To mask any feelings, super-reasonable organizations use big words and lots of technical jargon and acronyms. For example, faced with the Year 2000 problem, the organization that copes Super-reasonably might announce in April 1999 that all employees of the Help Desk organization must report for work at 10 PM December 31, 1999, for a 10 hour shift. The announcement would be made in a terse memo that has a very reasonable, bureaucratic tone. This approach to the problem seems logical, taking the emergency into account, but displays total disregard for the personal needs of the Help Desk staff. Moreover, it could cause them to leave the company in July, or to transfer within the company to other positions, thus damaging the organization itself.

A common feature of Super-reasonable coping is the sense of loss of objective that sometimes happens when we listen to a long, intricate logical argument. It makes sense at each step along the way, but soon we get a feeling of "Where is this headed? Are we ever going to reach a conclusion?" I call this form of Super-reasonableness "Lost in a sea of logic." Or if the organization does reach a conclusion, it fails to meet some basic tests of common sense — it fails to account for the people needs. I call this form of Super-reasonableness the "HAL-9000" form.

Lost in a sea of logic

In this form, the organization thinks something to death. This is perhaps the form that causes an organization to commission a task force to study a problem, even if the problem is three years old, and has been task-forced before. When the task force completes its report, nothing happens, in part because the report is too long and complex for anyone to understand. Instead of grappling with the problem, the organization just thinks about the problem. It applies reason as a coping strategy, rather than as a tool to address the problem.

HAL-9000

In the Help Desk example above, it's easy to see why somebody might believe that having staff on duty on New Year's Eve might be a good idea. But this plan just won't work, because it doesn't consider the basic needs of people. Moreover, by announcing the policy in April, management gives the staff plenty of time to look for new jobs. A plan that might work would be anything that was structured to make employees want to report to work, or at least be nearby and sober — for example, a free New Year's Party, with overnight accommodations. No alcohol, of course.

Super-Reasonable Vignette

The Super-reasonable diagram

The Super-Reasonable Configuration

How would the emergency project situation unfold in a Super-Reasonable organization? We might hear questions and comments such as:

  • I think we ought to create a subcommittee to look at our options. The problem is too complex for us to solve it here. Who's interested in heading up the committee? Can we have someone to volunteer to form a task force by the time we meet next week?
  • When someone objects, "Haven't we studied this problem before?", we might hear this retort: "Not really, things are very different now. We have a new vendor, the Cross-connect Assembly has been redesigned, and there have been extensive upgrades in the Firmware. It's a whole new ball game. We need to take a fresh look at this."
  • If your estimates are correct, and we need another 13.3 man-months to get this work done, we can finish it by June 12 if everyone works 52.5 hours per week between now and then, and if we reduce lunch breaks from 45 minutes to 35 minutes. Oh and we have to cancel the department picnic.

From Super-Reasonableness to Congruence

To move a group from a Super-Reasonable stance, in which only Context is taken into account, you must bring them to a place where they can see Self and Other. From that vantage point, they might see something about the organization, or about themselves, that might be difficult to accept. In our emergency example, it might be difficult to accept that the customer or sponsor has a right to know about possible (or even inevitable) delays, for their own planning purposes. The difficulty might come about because informing the sponsor/customer entails admitting that the organization has failed to meet its plan. That failure could cause some in the organization to feel that they have failed personally, even when it's plain that the failure is the organization's alone.

To help the organization face the situation, avoid accepting any delaying tactics, such as further study. Instead, ask what will be done with the outcome of the study. "What will we do if we find that we must announce a slip?" In other words, ask the hypothetical question that deals with the most negative possible result. Any unwillingness to deal with these hypotheticals is equivalent to a refusal to plan, which is anathema to the Super-reasonable position — refusal to plan is unreasonable. If you succeed in bringing the group to plan for the worst case, they might be led to address the details of the consequences for Self and Other, the missing elements that are needed for Congruence.   

Back to "Organizational Coping Patterns"

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