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When your organisational strength becomes its Achilles' Heel

(originally published 25/05/18)

A quick guide to Organisational Podiatry…

In my last post I tried to extract lessons for leaders from the crisis at Oxfam that had undermined trust in the whole aid sector. In this post, I explore whether an organisational dynamic I have seen in aid and other sectors may have been part of the issue. It is when a cultural strength essential for fulfilling an organisation’s external mission becomes its Achilles Heel and undermines effective internal management practice.

To stretch another foot-related metaphor, it’s like a toenail: essential protection for the toe-bone, but turned inwards, a source of great pain. Working across public, private and NFP sectors as I do, I believe I can see this phenomenon at work in parts of all three.

Three sectors – different yet the same?

The Aid Sector. An acute sense of justice and injustice is essential to any aid organisation. Passion and a certain amount of ‘righteous anger’is essential as they lobby governments and others in power to act justly on behalf of the poor and oppressed. But this acute sense of injustice can also make it incredibly difficult for senior managers to address issues of poor performance. It has been in the aid sector that I have seen some of the strongest defensive and even legal challenges to the raising of poor performance issues. It’s as if the person’s sense of injustice is so finely tuned that it immediately triggers the strongest defence when their own performance is questioned.

The HE Sector. I see a similar pattern in organisations in which critical and detailed analysis is a crucial part of the organisational DNA. The academic credibility of HE institutions is built on the ability to see the flaws in an argument or hypothesis. The proverbial red pen of the academic supervisor is a powerful and necessary tool. However, this strength of critical analysis – with its focus on what is wrong rather than what is right – can have a demoralising and even devastating impact when applied to assessing someone’s performance. Many academics feel much less equipped to manage people than they do a PhD.

The Insurance Sector. The preponderance of ‘Black Hat’ thinkers (see DeBono’s Six Hats) in the insurance sector, with their acute awareness of risk and attention to detail, makes them good at what they do. However, turned inwards, this strength can make for slow, over-bureaucratic decision-making and painfully slow progress when change is required.

4 Tips on how to prevent (or treat) organisational in-growing toenails:

1.  Provide career paths where experts can advance without becoming people managers.

I’m a great believer in helping people find career paths where they can continue to play to and further develop their strengths. In my experience, many technical and academic experts have little choice but to move out of their disciplines and become managers. Roffey Park’s pioneering research into ‘Experts as Leaders’ (2011 & 2015) revealed that many are reluctant leaders. Of the 345 technical and academic managers covered by the study, nearly 40% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “If I could progress in my career without having to manage people, I would”. A further 31% were ambivalent about their people management role. We need to be much more creative in developing career paths for ‘experts’ that honour their expertise without taking them away from it.

2. Don’t expert technical and academic experts to absorb management and leadership skills from the ether. A very different mindset and skillset is needed.

Having said this, many ‘experts’ can become good managers and leaders. They have the advantage of having the technical credibility that is often essential for others to follow. But don’t expect them to move away from roles that honour technical expertise with any confidence unless that are given the skills to do so. Without such support they will either neglect their management and leadership responsibilities or do it badly if they manage people eg as if they were Postgrads needing academic critique.

3. Ensure you develop emotional intelligence in your leadership programmes.

Goleman (1991) suggested that emotional intelligence (EQ) in leadership and management is 4x as important as IQ in predicting success. Roffey Park’s ‘Expert as Leader’ research identified that technical and academic experts often need extra help in this area. For some, it may be a need to be more sensitive to the emotional impact of one’s behaviour on others. For others, it may be managing one’s own emotional responses and taking things less personally. Either way, developing a leader’s EQ is likely to be time well spent.

4. Ensure you develop leaders’ skills in having difficult performance conversations

When managers don’t have the confidence to address conduct or poor performance issues, there is a tendency to work round them, wait until the individual retires or use a restructure to exit the offending individual(s). This prevarication means that problems fester until they are at crisis point and the drastic measures then needed often result in a difficult case to defend at Employment Tribunal. And don’t underestimate the negative impact on work climates if conduct or performance issues are not addressed. For this reason, it is vital to develop the confidence and skills of managers to tackle these issues early using a developmental approach before going down a formal route that may end in dismissal.


Was part of Oxfam’s difficulty the result of an ingrowing toenail? Was a fear of a litigious defensive reaction holding senior managers back from having challenging conversations and making difficult decisions? Those closer to their management culture are better able to tell than I am. But, continuing the podiatrist’s theme to the end - if the shoe fits, then wear it!

What do you think? Does your organisation have in-growing toenails?

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