A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
March 20th, 2014 by William


The word “Omphaloskepsis” comes from the Greek omphalos (navel) and skepsis (act of looking, examination), in other words: “navel gazing.” Omphaloskepsis is a form of religious meditation practiced by Eastern mystics who stare fixedly at their own navels to induce a mystical trance. Merriam Webster defines “Omphaloskepsis” as, literally the contemplation of one’s navel as an aid to meditation. It’s the activity of thinking too much or too deeply about yourself, your experiences, your feelings, being self-absorbed or prone to concentration on a single issue at the expense of a wider view.

That said there’s a lot to be said about navel gazing. They say that the only person you can change is yourself thus knowing yourself as well as possible could be a valuable and productive use of your time−right? This focus on introspection also applies to whole organizations.

In a 2009 article on the Chartered Quality Institute website, professor of business administration at Portland State University, Tom Johnson talks about the problems Toyota faced after being hit hard by the recession in 2007. He tells us, “Shoichiro Toyoda, the 84-year-old family patriarch of Toyota Motors, responded to his company’s problems by announcing a stunning shake-up of top management. He chastised Toyota’s top managers for losing sight of the fundamentals that had made the company so outstanding and promised that the company would “return to basics.” The company’s financial downfall, he indicated, was not because of the recession’s severity, but because the company’s top executives made the mistake of pursuing finance-driven growth and pricing at the cost of sacrificing the basic principles that had made Toyota thrive.”

The take away here is that many leaders, finding themselves in a situation such as Toyoda did, would have looked outward to explain their organization’s situation. However, Toyoda looked inward. “Here’s what we’re doing wrong.” “Here’s what we can do better.” In other words he embraced a good dose of navel gazing.

That’s not to say that an organization’s situation isn’t to some extent the results of external factors−companies don’t operate in a vacuum. And it’s not to say that an organization should just ignore external factors. Effective management needs to be aware of the external factors that might impact their organization’s success and, to whatever extent possible, try to manage these factors. But realistically a company’s management can only have so much leverage over external factors. Internal factors, however, are completely controllable−you just need to understand what exactly those factors are.

Why this need to look inward? That’s because, most modern management teams are more concerned with “transformation” rather than “transactions.” By this I mean they are infatuated with somehow “transforming” their organizations by preaching “thinking outside the box,” and trying to find new and different ways to solve problems. This versus, as Shoichiro Toyoda did at Toyota, looking within the organization for the causes of the problems and thus the solutions. In other words he focused on the daily “transactions,” i.e., how Toyota was doing business, between every person/department/group in the full organization. In other words he preached thinking inside the box, or “organizational navel gazing.”

From my past posts you all know I’m an advocate of thinking inside the box, i.e., organizational navel gazing. While many would condemn navel gazing as a bad thing, I contend that it’s, many times, the best thing a management team can do. Navel gazing is not that much different from “mindfulness” which is all the rage these days in the business journals.

Today most companies are trying to “benchmark” themselves with other similar organizations in their industry. Or they’re running after the latest fad buzzword, or buzz-phrase, in the industry. However, the benefits are not always there and the answer is usually much closer to home. Practicing good industry standards is one thing, but many things that are good for a specific company are not necessarily good for another.

In reality most solutions end up being found inside the company itself. Every company, no matter how screwed up they are have top-performing individuals, top performing teams and successful projects, thus the focus should be to find a way to clone that efficient/effective behavior. The problem is that most organizations really don’t know who their top performers are−the antiquated performance review process doesn’t really accomplish that. The performance review process marginalizes everyone in the organization and actually stifles excellence.

What every company needs is a structured way to identify excellent behavior so that it can be easily understood, and reused. This is where navel gazing comes into play and I’ve talked about this before. Many organizations will have “lessons learned” reviews when a project fails so as to find out exactly what went wrong, but seldom do they have the same reviews to learn why a project was successful. This is where the real learning happens. This means an organization should focus more on its strengths than its weaknesses−a methodology preached by many (including myself) who are critical of the current performance review process.

That said, understanding what went wrong does have its value. Navel gazing allows identifying all the internal organizational problems so as to facilitate the finding of solutions. The process helps everyone in the organization understand how the organization can be fine-tuned and adjusted to meet the challenges the organization faces. Far more organizational resources should be focused on undertaking a spate of protracted navel-gazing.

Alas, navel gazing is usually a term that’s used derogatorily in most organizations to chastise individuals who are critical of how an organization is managed. Instead organizations make themselves feel good by looking to the outside for that next and great “secret” to organizational success, whether its leadership development, teamwork training, quality initiatives (like Lean and 6-Sigma), hiring the “best of the best,” etc. Much more organizational time needs to be spent trying to get an organization’s internal house in order instead of taking the risk of trying the latest buzzword fad.

Navel gazing is not just a matter of getting together and singing Kumbaya with employees. It’s a no-holds-barred, honest review of how business is done from the bottom up. Companies who discover their internal differentiator (what they do right) and then work to exploit that differentiator, not only find the holy grail of success, they find the holy grail of employee motivation.


2 Responses to “Omphaloskepsis”
  1. Anonymous says

    Hi there, just wanted to say, I loved this post. It was funny. Keep on posting!|…

  2. Rosemary Haddad says

    I need to to thank you for this fantastic read!! I absolutely enjoyed every little bit of it. I have you bookmarked to look at new stuff you post…

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