February 26, 2009 by  Ashley Guberman

Too late… you already read the title, didn’t you? Well, there’s actually a deeper point here and it involves reading the signs within our organizations.

The peculiar thing about learning to read is that once we know how, it becomes very difficult to look at printed words without actually reading them. It’s one of the reasons billboards and newspaper headlines work. We see letters, and we read words and ideas almost without thinking.

However, for the vast number of Americans looking at a foreign language such as the Japanese phrase below, the story is a bit different. We may be able to look at the signs, symbols, or characters quite intently, and perhaps even reproduce them if we are careful. But when we see the image on the screen, or on paper, it simply fails to register with meaning.


But what if I told you that there was another “language” being spoken in organizations all over the globe and that despite its full structure and rich meaning, that it is still as foreign to most of us as that Japanese phrase above?

What I’m referring to are the patterns and practices of group dynamics and organizational behavior that take place in companies everywhere. The amazing thing about these behaviors is that they take place right under our noses, and in most cases we are actually participating in these behaviors ourselves. Yet more often than not, we still fail to see the deeper meaning that people are making as they try to understand their immediate world around them.

In some ways, it’s akin to trying to see the forest through the trees because each person within a group sees and acts out the expectations of their individual role. At the same time, however, there are larger patterns that repeatedly and systematically emerge which all too often sap an organization of it’s productivity, drive, efficiency, health, and direction. Would you like the ability to read these signals more rapidly and reliably? Would you like the ability use this information to make more effective decisions within your organization? I bet you would!

Admittedly, comparing the ability to read organizational behavior to reading Japanese is a bit far fetched, mainly because these behaviors are more familiar to us than Japanese. Further, many managers have either learned or been taught various skills to make reading the organizational tea-leaves a bit less cryptic. And yet, even with these foundational skills, organizations still encounter the same myriad of problem behaviors that allow them to get “stuck” in ineffective practices. Why is it that merely being in possession of these fundamental skills is not enough to bring about the corresponding change in organizational behaviors?

Let me explain by way of a story.

Recently, I was traveling on the island of Oahu, where most of the street-signs have Hawaiian names. Despite the fact that the signs used the roman alphabet, I still found them hard to read. While driving, my navigator told me that we were looking for the “Kalanianoale Highway” on the left. I was zipping along the road and a distant road-sign came into view. I knew what to look for, yet the word was so foreign to me that even while staring right at the sign, I still didn’t recognize the pattern in the letters. By the time I sounded it out and recognized the sign, it was too late — I had already missed my turn-off.

Something similar happens in organizations, even when people “know” the signs that they are looking for. When we are looking for signs of health and we find ourselves in a healthy organization, we are happy and productive, but often fail to pay much attention to the navigation that got us there. Practices like Appreciative Inquiry, on the other hand, have us focus on how we got there so that we get there more often.

On the other extreme, when we experience symptoms of a dysfunctional organization, that is akin to having just missed our turn-off (or many of them), and the next exit on the freeway is not for many miles. Even when we can point to one or more recent wrong turns, we may already be so far off track that nothing short of stopping to ask for directions will put us back on track again. Even then, what we really need is not better directions, but greater skill in reading the signs so that we make fewer wrong turns in the first place.

That’s where an Organizational Development consultant really shines — by teaching you to read the signs so you get lost less often. A good OD practitioner is like installing a GPS system inside your management team. This is because once you learn to read the recurring signs and patterns of organizational behavior, it is almost as difficult to ignore them as it is to look at a headline without reading it. This does not mean that you have to act on all of the signs that you see, but it does mean that you will have a greater ability to choose your route based on the added information that will become available to you.

When you are ready to learn more about the language of organizational development and to uncover the hidden meaning behind the recurring patterns you experience in your organization, contact Primary Goals. The language is much easier to learn than you might think, and a new tools can open up an expanded world of communication within your organization.

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