OD espouses tolerance, but is intolerant-in-action

At face value, the profession of Organizational Development exudes tolerance. But this is misleading.

Much of OD is trapped in the past, and often demonstrates intolerance towards innovation except for repackaging, buzzwords and marketable fads.

More shameful is OD’s embracing western values to the exclusion of others, a topic that I address most often on my blog and published work.

Things were not always this way. But now, faced with a world that they do not understand, traditional OD ers are stuck in the past when they encounter realities they do not understand. OD’s elite is protecting its vested interests as do all power elites, and by and large OD conferences burn incense and do not provide the needed innovation.

Global organizations of today have more behavioural variance than the organizations for which OD was designed. For many employees of today’s’ global organization, many (not all) values of OD are offensive.

  • The feedback loop and openness, critical cornerstones of OD, do not taste and feel good to people who comes from societies which prefer discreteness and face saving.
  • Participative decision making is threatening to people who see relationships as very unequal by design
  • Conflict management is totally offensive by the many employees who believe that talking about conflicts makes them worse.

When OD encounters  behavioural variance in a global context, it pays lip service to some “cultural differences” yet continues to impose the values of OD, because OD has yet re examine its core values in light of globalization and adapt its so call  tool kit.

  • “Jie, let’s be honest, and get this conflict out in the open.”
  • “Chan, why don’t you tell HQ what you really need from them? You are so opaque!”

I have personally learnt about OD’s intolerance in many ways. I shall list three

1-Massive resistance about the need to globalize the practice of OD. This resistance is disguised as yes but-ism.  “Yes Allon you may have a point, we need more “cultural sensitivity; but that is not main stream OD“.

2-For many years, an OD list almost threw people overboard who were not PC, or not “civil” or not “nice” or too temperamental, as judged by  “universal” Mid Western US standards.

3-The OD and HR satiric Gloria blog encountered fierce resistance because it is not “nice”. It was even marked as promotional material and banned by an OD list  on LI. The truth had struck too close to home. (In the meantime, the Gloria blog has been monetized and has almost 900,000 hits.)

Steeped in trauma of post-World War Two, the white middle-age men who founded OD were fighting the battle of their time. For the epoch in which they lived and experienced, the values of OD served as a beacon that enabled organizations/people to introspect as well and evolve more positively than even before. OD was a revolutionary force in its day. Today, OD force feeds Western values, and navel gazes about ‘cultural differences”.

This type of OD behaviour reminds me of the multi-culturalist who enjoys tasting the food of various minorities and even shows interest in their holidays, yet this same multi-culturalist behaves in such a liberal and inclusive manner only when the position of being the dominant cultural is ensured.  When faced with real cultural variance, the multi-culturalist retreats.

In the civil domain I support a multicultural society which maintains its boundaries, as in French secularism/laïcité. However in its professional domain of global organizing, OD cannot claim that its values are dominant. When OD claims to be tolerant but behaves oppressively, we have espoused tolerance and intolerance-in-action!

OD’s intolerance-in-action has positioned the profession as ill-equipped to deal with the complexity of global organizing.

All that is left of traditional OD in face of global complexity is: “Speak up Jai, even though I respect that it is not your culture”. And perhaps some ethnic food at lunch.

So how did it happen that our profession, a bastion of liberalism, become so backward?


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Allon  אלון

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19 thoughts on “OD espouses tolerance, but is intolerant-in-action

  1. Amen, Bro’ Allon.

    You nailed it, Baby.

    As you and I know from personal experience on ODNet, those that tout inclusiveness are the first to throw you out and under the bus if you voice the un-PC – if you don’t act as sheep in the liberal flock.


    Drive On!

  2. Allon: I get your points and I agree – however, (a) your rather blunt manner of making your points relies on the tolerance for directness and inclusiveness you criticize and (b) what do you propose as a way of moving forward?

    • Fred, My way of expressing myself is not “politically correct”. There is no tolerance for the way I express myself. As a matter of fact you yourself were part of the team that claimed Gloria was self promotion, unless my memory is playing tricks with me.
      The way forward is 1) promoting global OD. 2) teaching OD differently 3) less feigned tolerance 4) let traditional OD die…as it is dying now.

  3. and Fred, one more point. Listening to someone is not good enough to qualify for tolerance.
    Global OD is far tolerant than traditional OD because it is ready to suspend judgement as a strategy, not only as a “nice” tactic.

  4. “Global organizations of today have more behavioural variance than the organizations for which OD was designed.” That is the key message. Once that assessment lives in our neuropathways as the historical calling OD – as it was originally designed – is facing, then Global OD can emerge as a possibility.

  5. Hi Allon, Thanks for being candid in sharing your experiences. I am part of the next generation of OD. A late 20 something who does OD for a Fortune 200 company. My burning questions: What are better roads we can take for conflict management, feedback, communication & decision-making – when transparency conflicts with cultural values??

    • Hi Allon and Sarah, my questions reflect Sarah’s: What are better roads we can take for conflict management, feedback, communication & decision-making – when transparency conflicts with cultural values?? Allon, if you could write an article that provides some initial and concrete direction/examples, that would be a great beginning to building an ongoing dialogue about this critical need.

    • Hi Sarah,
      You have probably already done this, however for purposes of our discussion, here’s my input.
      Ask, how does the culture you are operating in “handle” these issues? Look at their models and ask the people steeped in the culture to give you examples of how these issues are handled in a culturally viable manner. So for example, if the feedback loop isn’t working, if you can ascertain parallels in the culture for how “needed improvements” happen on a micro-level in a variety of situations, then it’s a starting point.

  6. Allon, I wonder whether the upcoming “millennial” generation will have any impact on this, either in terms of OD or in terms of global organizations? My suspicion is that (at least in locations with easy internet access) their thought patterns have been formed by hyperlinks, with the result that their thought processes are very different from those of prior generations.

  7. Allon
    I agree with you completely. It is time for the profession of OD to reassess the way they approach the world. Too often well-meaning OD (and change) professionals assume their values and methods are what is best for others. It can be explained as a form of “intellectual imperialism.” Although I am not convinced that there is anything “intellectual” about being ethnocentric. Thank you for pointing out the conceptual and methodological bias of the traditional OD approach.


  8. Completely agree with how OD as a field has not kept pace, and has lost influence. I found your Gloria blog provocative and funny. Just didn’t find this the right venue for sharing it, but not because it wasn’t “nice.” It was because it didn’t offer solutions as I would want our dialogue to include. Thanks for sharing your analysis. I don’t mind your blunt, non-PC style, as long as you model global tolerance!

  9. I would not want to categorize myself as an OD person – that would be career limiting. OD continues to try to solve the problem of 4 decades ago. It is not that it lacks new problems to solve but rather that it is continuing to try to resolve old problems that no longer matter. Not that there are not new problems needing OD solutions. Change occasioned by globalization, the knowledge economy and the knowledge worker, changes in regulation and public policy that are overturning entire industries, fundamental demographic change, institutions that are incapable of pushing power to the front-line managers, economic and cultural changes, are all major problem needing OD. Like its counterpart the political Liberal class it fails to tackle the real problems that need solutions. Such as how do we tolerate 44M people being on food stamps, how can the richest country in the world permit 3M children every night to be homeless, how can a nation so cultural rich permit its education system to flounder and permit near illiterate children to graduate from its system, how can a judicial system be so broken as to permit the incarceration of millions of its citizens largely for lack of a proper legal defense, how can America permit such huge inequality between its races, how can a civil society continue to exits when every adult needs to carry a firearm for personal protection and finally how can a society that transgresses very value of a civilized society that tortures its opponents stand up and claim world leadership. OD people could begin by tackling the problems of our under performing institutions.

  10. Being an applied practitioner of OD for over 30 years, it seems to me that since HRMA decided to ‘control’ and foist their ‘values’ in ‘labeling’ and constricting OD – the fundamentals and dynamics of OD have been altered considerably to where these people do not bring OD to the world – it is something else….

    Thus, I believe that it is not OD that Allon refers to that is inconsiderate of a global perspective and appreciation – it is those ‘so-called OD’ HR associations and other western groups /certifications that demand their own values be ‘put upon’ others…

    OD is an ‘open system’ that appreciates the diverse vlues and perspectives of others – HRMA are not OD people and hopefully they go away… and soon, for they bring little understanding of OD to the world – like the HRMA…. and as HR messes up most organizations, they are doing the same to OD…

  11. I am the voice of most of my Indian and Asian collegues of OD who resonate with your candid exposition of where OD in the typical design is not taking Organisations who need them. I repeat – ‘ not able to take the Organisation ‘.
    OD had been in India since the founding fathers/sisters learnt it from NTL institute, Bethel , Maine and from the Tavistok Institute ,in UK. Those who were vehement on the ‘behaviour science’ wave in India, to which once I had a great
    admiration, suddenly started realising that anything goes in the name of OD.
    The slogan is ‘ what matters is what works ‘. Talking of impact we have seasons
    afflicting our focus. The focus is ‘ where the money is’ for the consultant. The intolerance comes from that disappointment. Organisations are in a hurry because India is beaming with growth opportunities and the early bird has been catching more worms than it could digest. For free lance OD consultants in India there are too many early brids and only a limited stock of worms left alive.
    To explain the scope of OD, the popular nomenclature would be – Change Management and as practice matures we name this Leading Change OD.
    The approch is multidisciplinary and premium is on reflective learning, accompaniment, tieing up with bottom line and top line margins and moving towards internal OD practitioners. Many free lancers are going back to jobs
    or else they will be extinct.
    The next decade is the golden period for India in all fields of Global influence.
    Our Universities are teaching with chalk and talk; showing the big resistance to use of technology. Our CEOs are holding more and more anxiety meetings to ensure they are not sacked ; unless ofcourse the family run ones, where what is whim is the fancy.
    A small group of neo professionals are emerging as Leading Change OD people
    in India, and they are leaving behind their track notes for followers who are searching the way in the Coporate Jungle.
    Wish them Good luck.

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