Culture of a shared lie

In my career, the most difficult environments to work in are those where there is a culture that accepts a shared lie.

What do I mean by that?  It’s simply where something is fundamentally broken, and key to how a significant part of the business works, but cannot be discussed as it is too politically sensitive to deal with head on.  Some examples might be where a very senior manager is known to be incompetent, or where a key supplier is only in place due to their friendship with a senior person.

These issues are usually well-known and are an unspoken truth that people work around.  They can go to the very heart of why an organisation is stagnant, or even worse why they might be failing.  The difficulty is that the longer it persists, the great the acceptance is of the lie.  It’s common to hear things like, “Oh that’s just Jeff, everyone knows he doesn’t like doing it that way”.

And that’s when the rot really sets in.  It’s one of those occasions where one person’s blind spot can have huge impact on the business, and the more senior the person the greater the impact.

Given that I’m a fairly outspoken person, and don’t suffer illogical working practices, the shared lie is something I’ve found I have a very low tolerance for.  Objectively, most people will support my irritation at such damaging behaviour, but organisationally it is very difficult to effect real change.

There is an interesting condition that can help to explain this in some cases; the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate.

This really is giving someone the benefit of the doubt, as they are genuinely acting in the belief that they know best.  More often though, I’ve found that people in these positions have been ‘promoted’ out of one problem they’ve caused to be someone elses problem.  It’s usually a case of other senior managers not wanting to tackle the difficult issues and fire someone – a sideways move allows everyone to save face.

Fixing the problem is difficult.  It has often persisted because the very nature of the organisation is that they do not like to tackle difficult issues.  Being the person who calls out the shared lie is often more likely to damage your own development opportunities in such an organisation, than solve their problems.  But then is that really a place you want to work?

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