I have already described in my book Managing Corporate Lifecycles (the new title to the new edition of Corporate Lifecycles book) how an aging organization behaves.
I would like in this blog to focus on one aspect of aging systems: how they communicate.
The first time I noticed how people in a bureaucracy communicate was during communist party meetings in Yugoslavia, in the 1960s.
At the time, I did not pay too much attention to it. It was just funny to listen to people talk during those meetings. The sentences were long and convoluted. The choice of words was “bombastic.” Then, I attended meetings of aging companies in my consulting profession in the United States, and the pattern looked very familiar.
Years later, I am now consulting in Russia; they have denounced communism formally over twenty years ago, but I noticed the same pattern of communication in formal meetings.
The pattern that I am going to describe below apparently is not driven by political affiliation or credo, nor by culture but by location on the life cycle.
First, what is the pattern? I describe some of it in my book.
In a young growing company, the pattern of communication is direct and short. Using four letter words is not unheard of. In my experience, in a GoGo company, cursing, calling people by a derogatory name is “normal.”
And at the same time, there is a lot of laughter.
It is an (E) culture. And (E)s are very, very aggressive, even offensive, and then turn around and the next day, they are charming, relaxed and funny. They forget the rage with which they communicated the day before.
The culture of the company reflects the style of its leader.
In an aging company, especially a bureaucratic one, the opposite is happening.
No one offends anyone. The communication pattern is formal. And confusing.
People communicate, but what they say can have multiple interpretations.
They use “heavy” words as to impress the audience. “Heavy” in the sense that sometimes you have to open a dictionary to look for what does the word mean.
They will repeat themselves, but the repetition does not make their communication clearer. Just the opposite. It makes it more confusing. They will speak “in circles” where the next sentence negates the message of the previous sentence or paragraph.
They speak not directly, the way a GoGo will do, but as if insinuating something.
Bombastic statements are not rare. They are the norm. Statements that communicate glory, big size, extreme devotion, are repeated. The statements reflect the total culture of grandiose-ness. Have you seen the buildings erected during Stain era in Moscow? I can not describe it . One has to see it. Enormous. Bombastic. Dwarfs you. Overpowers you.
It is not just the architecture that reveals a certain culture. The communication pattern does the same. It is mostly form where function takes the backseat.
Another point: A bureaucratic organization is disintegrated. Left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. That is reflected in their communication pattern too. One just does not understand what the speaker is saying. It all sounds like he or she took sentences at random and put them in a random sequence too. Actually, I once transcribed such a meeting and moved sentences around. You would not know which paragraph actually was used. None of them made much sense anyway.
The disintegration of the company is reflected in their communication too.
People in meetings often intimidate each other. In an aging company, they do it but very subtly.
Compared to the intimidation in a GoGo company, there, a person might start his message by saying: “I am sick and tired of this discussion. We discussed it many times before. Nothing gets done here anyway…” Or “we are wasting time…”
Or “this subject is too insignificant. Why are we spending so much time on it,” etc.
These sentences are a way of intimidating the listeners to change topic, or to yield to the speakers opinion.
You will not hear ever such sentences in an aging company. They stab each other with a knife, but it is laced with honey… Here is how I noticed it is done in Russia.
During the communist regime every one was a “Comrade.” They do not address anyone as “Comrade” anymore. It is not acceptable. It got substituted with the word “colleague,” but it is said in the same tone of voice like saying “comrade.” The way to intimidate is to say “ May I react to my learned colleague?”
“Colleagues, let us move on.”
What is appearing as a pattern is that a culture driven by location on the lifecycle is reflected not only in the strategy of the company, not only in its financial statements and processes, but also in the architecture of their office, in use of space, in selection of furniture, in dress regime and in communication patterns.
Culture is reflected in whatever the company does.
Dr. Ichak Kalderon Adizes