A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
May 12th, 2013 by William

The Practical Drift Contagion

Have you ever wondered: Why and how organizations can become dysfunctional over time and communication and teamwork decline and for all intents and purposes cease to exist? How the Fiefdom Syndrome gets started and grows into an all-encompassing feature of an organization’s culture? Why employees begin to mistrust and disrespect each other and must play interpersonal games to survive?

The latter is partially due to the “Red Queen Effect.” In 1973, evolutionary biologist, Leigh Van Valen of the University of Chicago, devised what he called the “Red Queen Principle” (also called the “Red Queen Effect”) from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. The effect is based on the Red Queen’s comment to Alice that: “in this place it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.” It explains why employees feel the need to compete against each other for raises, praise and promotions.

As organizations grow, or simply age, the phenomenon of the Red Queen Effect grows stronger every day. This is exacerbated by dysfunctional management as employees will mimic the behaviors of those at the top of the organization–the neck of every bottle is at the top. In my book Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw I devote an entire chapter to the Red Queen Effect and how it changes all workplaces. The Red Queen Effect also gets assisted by what’s called Practical Drift and all organizations suffer this contagion to some degree.

So what is Practical Drift? “Practical Drift” is defined as: the slow and steady uncoupling of practice from written procedure. The theory of practical drift emerged from Colonel Scott A. Snook’s root cause analysis of the 1994 friendly fire accident in which two U.S. Air Force F15 fighter jets patrolling the No-Fly-Zone over northern Iraq shot down two U.S. Army Black Hawk UH-60 helicopters. Twenty-six peacekeepers lost their lives. Snook’s conclusion tells us “the tighter the rules, the greater the potential for sizable practical drift to occur as the inevitable influence of local tasks takes hold.”

This basically means that when rules and regulations stifle the primary way through which departments of an organization communicate with, and rely on, each other the more each will evolve its own set of internal (and unwritten) rules and regulations to survive. What does this mean in the typical workplace? The short answer is that practical drift increases the likelihood of serious disconnects in organizations, i.e., disconnect in how the organization’s departments focus on the organization’s single overarching vision. It also explains perfectly how the Fiefdom Syndrome gets a foot hold and grows. In fact practical drift is the single most important basic ingredient to the Fiefdom Syndrome.

How does Practical Drift get started? Organizations rely on plans and procedures and people will always seek to find an easier, but not always cheaper, faster or better way of achieving a particular task. To say this includes “cutting corners” is probably an understatement. These “new” ways of doing things are part of the tribal knowledge that develops in every organization. This evolution of alternate ways to do things leads to the slow steady uncoupling of practice from written procedure. Over time the individual behavior that is acquired through everyday practice becomes the legitimized way of conducting business.

In his analysis Snook makes the case that the de-coupling of each organization’s procedures–in his case it was the Air Force from the Army–combined to create a disaster. He concludes his report by pointing out that the typical response to these traumatic events is for an organization to tighten procedures and increase penalties for failure. However he warns that this inevitably leads to the same pathology because in time, the new procedures will also be ignored.

Snook’s “practical drift” theory offers yet another perspective on the unpredictable nature of organizational behavior and how organizations creep into dysfunction.

According to Snook’s theory, practical drift occurs when organizational procedures are implemented with the assumption that the organization is a tightly coupled system, when in reality it’s every day functioning is loosely coupled. Coupling is defined as the level of interdependence between subunits, i.e., departments. When departments are tightly coupled, whatever happens to one department directly affects the others. When the departments are loosely coupled, no consequences are experienced when one fails to follow standard procedure or perform its function to the best interest of the overall organization.

Here’s an example: an engineering department designs a new product that is released into production. Because of practical drift (and despite wishful thinking) engineering and manufacturing have crept into a loosely coupled relationship. Manufacturing discovers quickly that the latest product released to them is not producible because of poor design. Decoupling would be evident when the manufacturing department is held accountable for not being able to produce the product yet engineering is not held accountable for the shoddy design. In this example each department has developed its own procedures, and selfish interests, that seem logical to them. This allows them to function independently most of the time thus reinforcing de-coupling. But when the relationship suddenly is required to become tightly coupled (engineering must take responsibility and work with manufacturing to fix the shoddy design), practical drift inhibits teamwork from functioning and the relationship further breaks down leading to disaster.

As Snook suggests (and I concur) the typical command and control response of increased policies and procedures, and blamestorming, will not address the core issue. Instead, he urges that management realize that the important question is not how to fix pilot error (human mistakes), crew inaction (communication) or even practical drift–it’s how does leadership nurture shared responsibility and accountability across the entire organization. Of course the typical management game of divide and conquer makes this goal difficult to achieve.

Practical drift explains how it is easy for an organization to slip into a culture of distrust and selfish motivations even when everyone in the organization has supposedly the same objective, i.e., bought into the same organizational vision. Therefore the answer to how to derail practical drift must also lie with management–the ones responsible for championing the vision and nurturing the teamwork required to achieve that vision.

However the more fundamental question is what can be done given this reality of human behavior? Practical drift begins no matter how strong the leadership–that’s why fighting it is a full-time job. As Snook pointed out above, practical drift cannot be addressed with increased and tighter rules or with cracking down on holding people accountable. That unfortunately is only a knee-jerk reaction that in the end exacerbates practical drift because it instills fear into the organization.

The key to preventing this contagion is by the leadership team practicing (day-in and day-out) the values that the organization has agreed upon and deemed representative of their true ethics. In other words they must walk-the-walk, not just talk-the-talk. The number one symptom, that this disease is taking a foothold, is the lack of trust between workers and management and (more damaging) amongst management itself. When managers don’t trust each other they nurture, maybe even unknowingly, practical drift to infect how their respective organizations operate.


2 Responses to “The Practical Drift Contagion”
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