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5 signs of Organizational Anarchy

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, anarchy is defined as “a state in which there is widespread wrongdoing and disregard for rules and authority.” Now, in order to context this, just substitute the word “business” for “state” in that definition and voila – organizational anarchy. I am sure many of you have or do experience this on a regular basis. I know some of my closest friends and colleagues sure have based on the number of “after hours” calls I have received since the start of 2013 in particular! Now, I am not just talking about your run of the mill complaints about silly policies, bureaucratic tendencies or redundant form filling out angst. I am talking about solid professionals, really smart, switched on types, dealing with total organizational anarchy.

ChaosNow, with all things, there are varying degrees of anarchy – from the “lesser” evils of ignoring basic policies, playing favourites, etc. to the more extreme which involve questionable ethics, shady business behaviour and outright lies. The overt or obvious signs everyone can pick up on – lying, cheating, stealing, etc. I am focusing on identifying some of the more “subtle” signs of anarchy. So, how do you know if you are working in an organization that is experiencing anarchy? Here are five of the more subtle signs:

1) Chain of command is merely three words – admittedly I do not have a military background; however, there is something to be said for organizations that have clear lines of reporting and accountability and those lines are actually followed. Organizations that are in a state of anarchy either do not have clear lines of reporting and accountability, or they simply exist on paper. What really occurs in these types of organizations is a lot of backroom conversations to circumvent certain players (i.e. those that draw a line in the sand with regards to questionable ethics or those that don’t tow the company line) and managerial meddling at all levels.

2) Policy (rules) are for peons – nothing smells of organizational anarchy more than companies that set out a clear set of policies, procedures, etc. for doing business and then having them only apply for front line staff. For example, I have seen many companies ask for staff help in controlling costs for things such as travel expenses. A clear set of guidelines and expectations are laid out and are enforced – for most of the staff. There are, however, certain select individuals that are allowed to continuously circumvent expense policies. When the jeopardies in circumventing these are brought forward by HR or Finance, they are brushed off as “not applying” to this group for no reason in particular and the problem is made to “go away” and never be spoken of again.

3) Legislation is your life – now we all know as HR pros, part of our role is to ensure organizational compliance and good governance. From time to time, we must consult or refer to case law, labour standards and human rights legislation to make sure we are not running afoul of these important pieces of legislation – most notably during a termination or lay off. However, if you find yourself referring back to these on a daily basis because of the actual or desired actions and decisions of your management team, than you most certainly are experiencing organizational anarchy. Repeat after me, it is not NORMAL for organizations to (potentially) be in violation of these acts almost every day of the week and for HR to need to act as a conscience 24/7 in order to keep the company from getting sued.

4) Control of the communication – one of the most painful parts of organizational anarchy is dealing with managers who try and control communication. It begins by refusing to document requests or dealings with employees – no, I am not referring to performance documentation, but things like refusing to reply/confirm via email because it creates a virtual paper trail. Another sign is managers that do not have conversations with more than one person at a time. They try and control all elements of communication by isolating each party and controlling the medium and messages. This way, they keep the two receivers of the information isolated and can manipulate their actions accordingly.

5) Elephants in the room – the acid test that determines if you have total organizational anarchy is when everyone knows who the root cause of the anarchy is and nothing is done about it. This typically occurs when you have someone at the top of your organization that is ambivalent about addressing the source of the anarchy because of some perceived benefit that the offender(s) bring to the company. This is the worst kind of anarchy in any organization because it jeopardizes organizational values and results in a culture of ethical “compromises” at all levels.

I order to drive home my point, I think what is very telling are the words that the dictionary refers to as “related to anarchy.”  You be the judge, based on the 5 signs identified above, if  an organization was experiencing them, would the following words apply:

commotion, tumult, uproar; chaos, confusion, disarray, disorder, disorderliness, disorganization, misorder; disruption, disturbance, havoc, turbulence, turmoil, unrest, upheaval.

What about you? What (subtle) signs of organizational anarchy have you seen or experienced? As always, I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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