Institutional Addictions

We all understand the concept of addiction in individuals.  The idea is that an individual is caught in a web of bad decision-making that, even when the person understands the decisions they are making are bad for them, they still make them.  When a person is addicted, he or she will go to great lengths to cover up the addiction and create a façade of well-being.

But what about institutions?  Can they be addicted too?  Can institutional cultures both exhibit behaviors that are unhealthy and, at the same time, seek to cover up these unhealthy behaviors?

I have found that institutions can exhibit addictive behaviors.  And, much like individual addictions, the idea is that the addictive behaviors keep the institution from achieving what is really important. Instead of daily striving toward mission and vision, the institution gets caught in a downward cycle of behaviors that stagnate progress and injure individuals in the process.  And, much like addicted individuals, addicted institutions will strive to cover up their condition.

Here are 3 institutional addictions that harm the enterprise and the people in it:

  1. Addicted to Drama – high-drama cultures run on a collective sense of adrenaline. There are always fires to be put out.  Order is eschewed and chaos is embraced.  Even when things seem to be running smoothly, mountains suddenly will erupt out of mole-hills.  In order for the drama-addicted culture to continue, there will be no serious efforts to establish more organizational structure.  If you are in a drama-addicted institution, you have probably heard this statement that attempts to hide the problem: “Everybody just pulls together and gets the job done!”
  2. Addicted to Control – if high-drama cultures are chaotic, controlling cultures are ones in which there is so much organizational structure that individual team members are valued less than their positions. Information and decision-making is jealously held by those at the top of the organizational chart.  With this addiction, team members will report that they don’t feel like they have much ability to define their work and, as such, don’t find their work meaningful.  Control-addicted environments are “us vs. them” environments which silo people and encourage everyone to watch out for themselves, instead of working for the common good.  If you are in a control-addicted institution, you have probably heard this statement that attempts to hide the problem:  “I wish I could do something, but that’s not my job.”
  3. Addicted to Metrics – in the metrics-addicted institution, there is too much focus on analyzing how much progress you are making toward your vision and not enough focus on actually achieving the vision. Data is the currency of the realm.  And quibbling over what the data means (when you have it) is the #1 institutional pastime.  Instead of doing work that supports the mission, people highlight metrics-making, data-collection, and data analysis as the work.  Metrics and data will never be the work, they are a reflection (albeit poor ones) of the work.  If you are in an metrics-addicted institution you have probably heard this statement that attempts to hide the problem:  “We will need better data before we can make a decision.”

To break these institution addictions, we must constantly remind ourselves and our colleagues why we do the work we do.  If you believe you work in a drama, control, or metrics-addicted environment, you can help your institution break its addiction with a regular and consistent dose of re-focusing.  In multiple ways and at every opportunity, ask your colleagues, “specifically, how will what we are talking about help us achieve our mission and fulfill our vision more effectively?”

When you ask that question – perhaps over and over – you will encourage others to focus not on the addiction, but on the good work you are all called to do.


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