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Waking Up in Wonderland

Some people say that stress is the gap between expectation and reality. This seems like an overly simplistic definition, but I think it gets at something true about the challenges associated with being continuously disappointed.

Consider it in the context of popular discourse about HR, leadership, and organizations. If aliens landed on Earth and studied what to expect from working in an organization by attending conferences and reading social media posts from HR and organizational thought leaders, they would probably be really fucking disappointed on their first day at work:

“Where are the servant leaders? Can I be transferred to the team where the psychological safety is located? Your growth mindset appears to be absent today. What time in the day do I get to release my innovative potential?”


If we put aside fears about how we might disappoint our future alien colleagues, it’s still worth asking what impact this gap between rhetoric and reality has on us Earthlings. Does wading into HR Twitter chats and motivational quotes about work set us up for disappointment, or serve an important purpose?

I come to these questions honestly, after more than 15 years in HR roles in some really wonderful organizations. Even in the best workplaces that I’ve been fortunate enough to work in and contribute to, there are all manner of challenges, issues, inconsistencies, and confusion. I believe that these are inherent features of organizations. That they can’t be expelled or eradicated, only navigated. To be free of these dynamics we would have to have organizations free of humans.

And yet, so much of what we (and I am including myself here) blog, speak, and tweet about are idealized visions of organizations, teams, leaders, and our own profession(s). Learning organizations, culture change, servant leadership, innovation, agility; we discuss these idealized concepts as attainable, even commonplace, organizational states of being.

I think that this says much more about us than it does about the reality of organizational life.

I don’t blame us for wanting to spend time in the rarified space of ideals. Cleaving to the uncomplicated, optimal, and rational image of organizations and leadership is a powerful antidote to the anxiety and internal ambivalence that the reality of organizational life (marked by complexity, irrationality, and chaos) understandably provokes in us.


But maybe it should come with a warning label. Here it strikes me as clarifying to consider the difference between normative and descriptive frameworks.  Normative theories, frameworks, or claims are those that describe how something should be done, whereas descriptive theories, frameworks, or claims are those that describe how things are actually done.

There is clearly space, and need, for both normative and descriptive theories and claims when it comes to people and organizations. The problem is when we’re not clear about which is which, and we transmit that lack of clarity to other practitioners (especially new ones), leaders, employees, and clients.

Most popular writing about organizations, including social media conversations, strike me as being largely normative. As describing organizations that we urgently wish to cultivate and inhabit, but that always exist, maddeningly, out there somewhere rather than here (wherever we are right now).

I think this sets us up for disappointment, disillusionment, and cynicism, and undermines our credibility with others in our organizations whose experience can sometimes differ markedly from these idealized images.

Why do we do this? What would it mean to notice and accept that organizations are inherently messy, imperfect, chaotic places, at times immune to the hopes we project onto them?

How would it feel to accept that the idealized places we imagine are largely fictional, that they say more about us then they do about the reality of work?

Could we feel this and keep showing up, day after day?

I don’t know. It can be a tough gig, to be honest. I think that engaging with these aspirational concepts can offer inspiration, hope, and even be a form of play, in which these ideas can be tossed around online, stacked up, remixed, debated. And this is all fine, I think, provided we don’t confuse this with reality, or suggest to others that this represents a descriptive lens on organizational life.

Assuming that these concepts are universally desired, attainable, and suitable for every workplace sets us up not only to be potentially disappointed, but also to overlook the complexity inherent in organizations, and the unique context of our individual workplace that might enable or prevent us from improving it. I think this increases the likelihood of failed initiatives, and even of unintentional harm to the other inhabitants of our companies.

What to do instead? For those who may have lost their way, who despair that the daily chaos of working with others is not what was promised, a reset is in order. I don’t mean a ‘tough love’, ‘suck it buttercup’ lecture, or simply resigning oneself to an inferior version of reality. I mean finding a new metaphor to make sense of your own, and others’, experiences. Metaphors, as Gareth Morgan describes them, are ‘a way of thinking and a way of seeing that pervades how we understand our world more generally’.

Shortly after I wrote my last post, which was on this subject, I came across a journal article that Naomi Stanford linked to in her excellent writing on org design. This article proposes what I believe to be a more apt metaphor for the everyday experience of the workplace than the rational, orderly metaphors we often default to (organization as machine or organisms). McCabe instead describes organizations as Alice’s Wonderland, filled with “absurdity, irrationality, uncertainty, and disorder”.

“This metaphor is important because those who are tasked with managing organizations may find it stressful and puzzling that they are so inept, when they compare their experiences and achievements with the rational model. In this sense, it offers both comfort and perhaps encouragement, but it should also foster humility and caution in terms of what those at the top can achieve. Likewise, those on the receiving end of irrational decisions or who reside in absurd worlds can gain solace from knowing that they are not alone, whilst those concerned with resisting such conditions can find strength in the knowledge that those in positions of authority are not omniscient/omnipotent.”

Why this metaphor? Not only does it resonate powerfully with my own personal experience, I think it also offers a gentle check on our expectations and provokes compassion for ourselves and those we are intended to support in our workplaces. When we acknowledge the complexity and absurdity that are inherent in trying to get a bunch of humans to do complicated things together (which is, after all, what an organization is), it becomes easier to empathize with those who struggle to succeed and get along in our workplaces. It also fosters caution, and an appreciation for the care needed to actually achieve change in a company. To me, that means slowing down and looking more deeply at my current context before leaping to a solution, or adopting a ‘best practice’ from another company.

Finally, and this is important, it brings humility. When we traffic primarily in normative language (how something should be done) we risk falling into the trap of moralizing. In Flawless Consulting, Peter Block says:

“Moralizing… makes great use of certain words and phrases: “those people” and “should” and “they need to understand.” When you hear them being used, you know you are about to go on a trip into a world of how things ought to be, which is simply a moralizing defense against reality. People use the phrase “those people” about anyone who’s not in the room at the time. It is a phrase of superiority used in describing people who are usually at a lower organizational level than the speaker or are unhappy about something the speaker has done and therefore “really don’t understand the way things have to be”.

Phrases of superiority are actually ways of putting oneself on a pedestal. Pedestal sitting is always a defense against feeling some uncomfortable feelings and taking some uncomfortable actions.”

When we assume that the idealized images of organizations described on social media or at conferences are descriptive (how things actually are) rather than normative (how things should be), but we don’t see that reflected in our organization, it’s very tempting to assume we know what to do, but “those people” don’t understand, and that’s why we haven’t achieved that aspirational state in our workplace. This creates distance and disdain between us and the organization, limiting our influence and ability to make change and virtually guaranteeing we feel resentment, disillusionment, and cynicism. That is, until we leave for greener pastures, only to repeat the cycle somewhere else.

If this resonates for you, stop running. Stop running, and consider instead a trip through the looking glass, and embrace the strange world you’re in.




4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Brian Bobechko #

    Jane, you write so eloquently I find myself intimidated to post a comment.

    I enjoyed your most recent installment as always. The concepts of normative vs descriptive and hope vs despair evoked in me thoughts of AI and corruption. Normative theories would certainly be the model to one would ideally use to train your AI manager, or at least to set the goals of your AI manager. This is no longer the domain of sci-fi. More cynically, I can’t help but think some people may introduce dysfunction intentionally in organizational systems for narcissistic reasons, and indeed don’t share the ideals of normative systems at all. POTUS provides a case in point. Would have liked to hear your thoughts on the utility of organizational theories at these extremes.

    Will look forward to your continued scholarly exploration of these interesting and timely subjects.


    January 28, 2020
  2. Tracy #

    Wow that is a fantastic article…so incredibly accurate and honest!!! Thank you!!!!!

    January 28, 2020

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