Work below the waterline

If you’re working with people who are being ‘restructured’ and are now in the process of transitioning to the new structure, it’s worth looking at the report The impact of restructuring on employee well-being: a systematic review of longitudinal studies.  I remembered it in a meeting I was in recently where we were discussing the movement, due to a restructure,  of people from one part of the organisation to another.   The conversation stuck at the practical logistics – number of people, letters they would get about their move, dates, new reporting lines/managers, and so on.  There was no discussion of their feelings, emotions, experiences of being moved, although someone noted that many people had left knowing that they would be moved and voting with their feet on it.

Co-author, of the report just mentioned, Karina Nielsen reminds us that ‘Restructuring is a significant characteristic of working life in both private and public companies and a large part of the working population will face one, but probably more restructuring events in their career. It is therefore important to understand the effects of restructuring and the impact of the way the process is managed on employee well-being, in order to reduce the negative effects for employees who continue to work at the organisation afterwards’.

She continues, ‘Our findings show that it doesn’t really matter whether people are laid off or not, it still has a negative impact. Those employees who stay on at the organisation might have to do tasks they are not familiar with and they don’t necessarily get the training. They need other competencies.’

These more negative responses are harder to deal with, and are often side-lined or ignored, as conversations stay focused on the way things are ‘supposed to be’.  Just as was going on in the meeting I was in.  But ignoring them is a risk. The tangled mass of informal systems, processes and interactions that frequently contravene, sometimes contradict, and often overrule what is supposed to be, the formal systems, are what can make or break a restructure.

A common way of visualizing this ‘supposed-to-be + tangled mess’ is as an iceberg. Dan Oestreich, in his blog At the Water-line explains: ‘The top part of the iceberg represents the visible, formal aspects of an organization, such as the stated goals, the technologies, structures, policies, and services of an enterprise. Below the water-line are the covert or so-called “hidden” aspects of an organization, the beliefs, assumptions, perceptions, attitudes, feelings and values that characterize the real-world interactions from which an organization is also built. If the top of the iceberg represents “the way we say we get things done,” the bottom and larger part is “the way we really get things done.”  ‘

What is usually discussed and informs the ‘way we say things get done’ – is the above the waterline stuff: for example, written charts and hierarchies, role descriptions, strategic plans, disciplinary and other procedures, workflow maps, etc.

What is not discussed as much, is ‘the way we really get things done’ the below-the-waterline stuff of feelings, emotions, values, norms, interactions (positive and negative) and day-to-day ways of doing things.

The deeper the elements below the waterline, the harder it is to see, interpret and work with them. However, everyone is aware of the many different groups of people engaged in collaborations, conflicts and conversations to define the agenda of the organization and, in doing so, shape its course of action.  As one writer says:

Some cultures are more open than others when it comes to expressing inner thoughts and feelings. Most situations have a ‘subtext’ of unspoken thoughts – the kind of conversation we are accustomed to keep inside our heads.

This was illustrated in the film Annie Hall, when Woody Allen and Diane Keaton meet at a party and the verbalized conversation between them is subtitled with their private, internal thoughts. Needless to say, the open conversation and the private ones are quite different, but it is interesting how their non-verbal communication reveals some of their inner thoughts.

Of course, there are inner thoughts which it is better not to reveal, but often it is the inner conversation which directs our actions, and for that reason we need to find ways of expressing the subtext openly, and encouraging others to reveal theirs.

Although it is possible to force through a change without acknowledging these inner conversations, the consequences are usually disruptive and hard to handle. It is in the transitioning phase – when the movement from/to is happening – that the below-the-waterline of the organization is the most powerful.

Successful transitioning from current state to planned state requires looking below the waterline – surfacing and working with it.  Without open discussion defensive behaviour, blocking, non-compliance and other potential showstoppers are likely to emerge.

There are some techniques and tools you can use to to do this.  Two that I use are:

Peter Senge’s ‘Left Hand Column’ activity, which is helpful in workshops.

Acting like a corporate anthropologist – developing and using skills in systematic ‘on the ground’ observation and ethnographic methods to comment on what’s going on.  Ways of doing this include:

  • being and staying aware of responses to transitioning through feedback mechanisms like ‘pulse checks’ of morale, motivation and productivity (note these may record what people think they ought to say not what they want to say);
  • aiming to understand what is going on through dialogue, interaction and empathy;
  • working responsively to select and use appropriate tools and techniques that help people in transitioning;
  • monitoring what is working and what is not, and adjusting accordingly;
  • assessing how people are using technology and other tools in the course of the work day;
  • enquiring how workers extract meaning (or not) from their work;
  • noticing where conflicts arise and what causes them;
  • ‘valuing the continuous process of people’s day-to-day interactions’ as they come to terms with the transitioning phase – that is, the informal conversations, the political realignments and the role of informal leaders;
  • And, as Chris Rodgers says, ‘stimulating and participating in meaning-making conversations, and seeking to mobilize the actions of people around important emerging themes during this period’

Key to mobilizing support from below the waterline, Nielsen (mentioned earlier) finds, are ‘the characteristics of the restructuring process, such as fairness of procedures, communication and change management [which] in general have been found to have an impact on worker well-being. Some groups of workers react less negatively, for example if they have more chance of influencing the process’

Much of the ‘noise’ about the design goes on below the waterline of the organization. Taking the anthropologist’s perspective and using their skills gives organisation designers and line managers the chance of finding out what is actually going on, developing interventions, and evaluating the intervention process and its impact on the effectiveness of transitioning to the new design.

How do you work ‘below the waterline’ in restructures you are involved in?  Let me know.

NOTE:  This piece is an edited extract from Chapter 7 of my book, Organization Design the Practitioner’s Guide.


Image: The Sculpture Coralarium. Sirru Fen Fushi, Maldives, Jason deCaires Taylor