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November 27, 2006

News & Opinion: Covert Practices at Work: Managing the Five Hidden Dimensions of Organizational Change by Robert J. Marshak

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 4:19 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture



Office politics, hidden agendas, irrational fears - these are the covert practices that threaten to undermine change efforts in corporations. Marshak offers methods for identifying corporate practices at work and explains several key strategies for dealing with them. Below are three (of five) Basic Keys from Chapter 5 of Covert Processes at Work: Managing the Five Hidden Dimensions of Organizational Change by Robert J. Marshak. Five Basic Keys Clearly, organizational change can be thwarted by the fears, untested assumptions, unconscious reactions, and under-the-table dealings of its members. Yet change can be facilitated by unleashing hidden creativity, removing unspoken blocks, altering mindsets, and giving voice to unspeakable visions of greatness. To prepare for dealing with hidden dynamics, this chapter presents five keys for engaging covert processes. I have found these basic building blocks to be essential. If I neglect to follow them carefully, I am much less effective. The five basic keys are:
1. Create a safe environment.
2. Be selective and seek movement, not exposure.
3. Assume people are trying their best.
4. Look in the mirror.
5. Act consistent with expectations of you and your role.
Key 1: Create a Safe Environment
First and foremost, in all work with covert processes, is to establish enough psychological safety to allow hidden dynamics to be revealed. Its worth noting that early meanings of the word covert included sheltered and protected. In those meanings of the word, covert processes exist to protect against the risks associated with putting something on-the-table that is considered to be inappropriate, illegitimate, or unacceptable. Perfect safety is too high a standard, but safe enough for people to put things on-the-table and openly engage them is the prime directive of covert processes work.

Fear and Threat
The Covert Processes Model tells us that things are on-the-table when the contents of the guiding prism(s) interpret them to be legitimate, proper, and acceptable, unless they are unconscious or out-of-awareness. If they are perceived to be too good to be true or questionable, illegitimate, or unacceptable, they will be knocked off or kept off the table. Most people try consciously to avoid saying or doing things that the prevailing norms and beliefs find questionable or unacceptable. To do otherwise is to court redress, sanctions, embarrassment, or worse. Fear or threat of repercussions is a major reason things become covert and are kept off-the-table.

Psychological Safety
It is essential to create a psychologically safe environment in order to address covert processes. Keep in mind that things will be hidden when people feel there is a risk of exposure. Putting someone on the spot in a team meeting by accusing them of being too emotional is likely to elicit a denial: No! I am not angry, hurt, jealous, afraid! Questioning someones competence in front of others will do the same: No, I did not make a mistake, fail to follow through, screw up!

Its not that you cant address these topics, but you must address them in ways that are perceived as safe enough for open exploration. Remember that safety is always in the eye (prism) of the beholder. In short, all types of emotions, thoughts, needs, motives--and even hopes, dreams, and wishes--will remain hidden until people feel safe enough to reveal them. Therefore, the primary intervention in all work with covert processes is to create a safe enough environment for further inquiry. To create a psychologically safe environment requires at a minimum that you establish trust, boundaries, and a sense of control in thefocal system.

Establish Trust
Creating a safe environment means establishing a context where people feel there is trust. People will not reveal their secret hopes and dreams, nor their doubts and misgivings, if they believe the information will be used against them, hold them up to ridicule, punish them, put them down, embarrass them, or cause them to suffer some other negative repercussion. They must trust that what is shared will be treated with care and respect. They must trust they will not suffer retribution for letting the cat out of the bag. They must trust that what they put on the table will be used toward important and meaningful ends, not simply to satisfy your curiosity. This means that a work setting where snide comments, put-downs, jokes at others expense, studied cynicism, fear of retribution, oneupmanship, and gossip are the norm will be one where covert processes flourish. You must do whatever you can to create a climate of sincerity, respect, inquiry, trust, and collaboration.

Establish Sense of Control
People need to feel that they have some control over how much to reveal, when, in what way, and in what depth. An environment where people feel they will be forced or bullied is an environment with a lot of covert processes. You need to create ways of addressing covert issues that make clear there are boundaries and limits to what will happen. For example, you can establish ground rules, time limits, and clear steps and processes and then pointedly stick to them. You also need to make clear that people will have the ability to control the pace, process, and purpose(s) of any interactions. All of these and more are important aspects of helping to set an environment where people feel safe enough to put things on-the-table.

Threat in Eye of Beholder
Keep in mind the intent of most covert processes, such as denial and repression, is to protect the focal system from real or perceived threat. While an outside observer might not see a situation as dangerous, you must remember that the focal system is operating from its own frame of reference. What is dangerous is always defined by the focal systems belief system, not yours. Pay attention to the particular methods and behaviors used by the focal system to guard against perceived danger. These indicate when something might be threatening, and signal the types of defenses used by the focal system to protect against threat. For example, an elaborate process of sign-offs and pre-meetings before anything is discussed in an executive group may be an indicator that open discussion of new topics is covertly threatening. Observing that process, you might be able to speculate about the governing prism beliefs and what you might do to create enough safety for more spontaneous interactions (should that be desired).

Avoid Becoming the Threat
If you act from your own frame of reference without much attention to the focal systems prism, you are likely to be perceived as blind to the realities, or foolhardy. Naturally, this makes you and your actions dangerous. When you ignore the focal systems perspective about what is dangerous, you risk violating the primary condition of safety; instead, your actions must recognize the sense of threat to the focal system inherent in revealing what has been previously hidden. You might find that people in a team meeting are more willing to report small-group discussions of concerns rather than individual expressions. As an outsider working with a focal system, you must understand that generally members of the focal system have a more accurate sense of what is threatening than you do. For example, expecting people to fear no retribution following a two-day teambuilding session may be unrealistic if the teams earlier experiences included retribution. Important information about what is really going on can be missed if you have a blind spot that always sees such behavior as resistance to change versus protection from threat.

Key 2: Seek Movement not Exposure
The Covert Processes Model makes it clear that multiple covert processes are always present and that they result from a variety of complex dynamics. Covert processes are also based in many cases on the focal system protecting itself from anxiety and fear of exposure. This suggests that you must be selective in what you focus on and always mindful of safety. In being selective, keep in mind that the purpose of addressing a covert process is to facilitate desired movement, not to expose something or someone as an end in itself. You need to be clear about desired outcomes and to focus on the covert dynamic(s) most directly related to preventing the focal system from achieving them. Always avoid raising issues that cannot be addressed or that are not ready to be addressed. Exposing someone or something may temporarily put something on-the-table, but may violate the necessary conditions for dealing with the hidden issues effectively. The following ideas are designed to help you be selective as you seek movement, not exposure.

Be Alert
You need to stay alert to the full range of covert processes that may be operating simultaneously in a focal system. This requires an acceptance that there will always be covert processes in any organizational change effort. It also requires you to have some covert process diagnostic skills, as well as clarity about your own prism, which may filter your perceptions of a situation. In other words, you need to guard against having your biases and preferences lead you to ignore certain covert dynamics. For example, if you are uncomfortable thinking politically, you may miss some important signals about power and politics in the focal system.

Be Nonjudgmental
It is important for you to maintain a stance of nonjudgmental inquiry about any covert processes you suspect are at work in a particular situation. Once you begin to judge, either positively or negatively, you may close off inquiry too quickly without staying open to all that may be going on: you have seen enough, reached a conclusion, and are ready to act. Worse, if you have judged the situation negatively, you may be tempted to attack or punish those involved, thereby violating the perceived safety of the situation: Its really terrible what is going on and he/she/they deserve to be exposed. Well, Kim, I think if you really cared about this organization you would speak up about any misgivings. Leslie, that kind of statement is totally inappropriate given the seriousness of the situation we are facing, are you on-board or not? Instead, a stance of curiosity is needed. Wondering why something is happening and what covert processes may be involved will help keep you open: I wonder what he/she/they think is risky or dangerous about this change? Kim, youve been quieter than usualdo you have anything to add? Leslie, will you say more, Im not sure I fully understand what you mean.

Clarify Desired Outcomes
To deal with covert processes effectively you must be clear about the outcomes you and the focal system seek to achieve. Do you want to break a log jam so that a decision can be made? Are you trying to get some important information onto the table to increase the quality of a decision? Do you want to find out a fuller range of the feelings people are experiencing in order to increase collaboration? Are you trying to encourage creativity to open up new possibilities? Without clarity on what you intend to achieve, you risk revealing something just for the sake of doing it. Some people dont like the idea that anything is hidden or covert and confuse exposure with achieving desired results: They are hiding something and I am going to expose them! This might through happenstance create the desired effect, but it risks violating peoples sense of safety over what is revealed and for what reasons. Being clear about desired outcomes helps you to focus on exactly what to address: Hmm. We are trying to agree on the budget for this project and are making progress even though we havent talked about all our implicit assumptions. I probably dont need to point that out right now.

Avoid Exposure for Its Own Sake
Most people pay attention to body language and other cues about what others are really thinking and intending. The focal system will be sensitive to your intentions, no matter what you say publicly. Consequently, you need to be clear with yourself and with them that you are seeking progress, not punishment. If people in the focal system suspect that you are likely to expose someone, without good cause or without safeguards, then trust will be low and little will be accomplished. Again, the key question is: Do you want to have the focal system move forward or do you want to expose, ridicule, blame, or otherwise get someone? Again, this does not mean that you cant confront or hold someone accountable, but the way it is done makes all the difference in the world.

Measure Success by Movement
Keeping in mind that you are trying to achieve movement towards an intended outcome, not exposure per se, is also important in measuring the effectiveness of your actions. If there is movement based on what you have done, then your actions can be interpreted as effective even if nothing covert was publicly revealed. The same is not true if the purpose is to expose, regardless of movement. It does little good to reveal a secret if the focal system is not prepared to deal with it. Worse, the inability to deal with it could end up convincing everyone that they were right in keeping it a secret in the first place. Thus effectiveness in working with covert processes must be measured in terms of movement rather than degrees of exposure. During a staff meeting two of my colleagues got into a heated disagreement. The room became tense because everyone knew they often argued with each other. People felt uncomfortable, and we were distracted from the work we had gathered to do. I wondered if the two debaters had gotten stuck in their arguments--that neither one could back off without thinking they had lost out to the other. Clearly this was not the time for anyone to point out their disruptive behavior or speculate on what was causing it. We needed them to join the rest of the team. Acting on the hunch that neither one was willing to lose to the other in front of colleagues, I spoke up by summarizing what each had been saying and then acknowledging the important points each had made. I then suggested we all needed to think about their points over a break. My actions were not intended to ignore their behavior, but represented a calculated way to allow them to disengage, save face, and let some informal hallway chatter change the dynamics. When we reconvened, they stopped arguing with each other and collaboratively joined the rest of us. In the long run, their disruptive interpersonal dynamics had to be addressed. In the short run, we needed movement. There was no point in pointing out their excessively competitive egos in a team setting where that was not likely to be successful.

Key 3: Assume People Are Trying Their Best
In working with covert processes it helps to proceed from the assumption that most people are trying their best. This means that the person or group is trying to be effective and do a good job, even when what they are doing is clearly not very effective or even competent. Working from the assumption that people are trying their best does three things that set the stage for effectively engaging covert dynamics.

Develop Hunches
The assumption that people are trying their best is important to developing hunches about the contents of the focal systems prism, even though you may not be able to access its contents directly. If you assume that people are trying their best then, regardless of the effectiveness of their actions, you can speculate about what might be guiding those actions. In short, you ask yourself the diagnostic question: What beliefs, assumptions, values, or theories would have to exist in their prism to lead them to behave in this way, assuming they are trying their best? In this regard you are like an anthropologist plumbing the cultural beliefs that underlie a societys observed behaviors and customs. In short, you develop hunches about the contents of the prism by deducing the implied beliefs leading to observable behavior: Everywhere I go in this organization they talk about referring things upstairs, or having to check with the boss, or running things up the flagpole. Do they have something in their prism about deferring to leaders? This type of speculation tends to ensure that actions will be taken from the frame of reference of the focal system and not from an outside perspective. Working with the prism will be discussed further in Chapters 7 and 8.

Signal Your Support
When you assume that people are trying their best, you exhibit behaviors and attitudes that communicate that you believe the focal system is capable of changing itself. This is an invitation for people to take initiative rather than depending on others for leadership. Operating from this stance does not mean blindly accepting that the focal system is competent or wise. Coaching and developmental support may still be needed, but this support is less threatening than directly challenging peoples abilities.Empathy and Further Inquiry The assumption that the focal system is trying its best encourages you to stay open to new information, empathize with the focal system, and invites inquiry rather than judgment. Adopting this stance creates a psychologically safer setting that is more conducive to disclosure and exploration than to defensiveness. Your demeanor will be markedly different if you assume that a focal system keeps bumping up against the same obstacle because of a blind spot in its prism, rather than because people are resistant, stupid, or acting politically.
: : : : This excerpt comes from Covert Practices at Work by Robert J. Marshak, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, July 2006.

About Dylan Schleicher


Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.