The dangers of “organizational utopianism”

A major component of organizing is balancing mutual dependencies between people and functions.

The fulfillment of mutual dependencies is the very essence of successful organizing, yet the dependencies which enable organizing always create anxieties. I am fully aware that people skim articles, but the stuff in italics is really important! 😉

There is no way whatsoever to eliminate the inherent anxieties of organizing; they can only be mitigated. Any attempt to “cure these anxieties” is organizational Utopianism.

Political utopianism, be it communism or nationalism, has bred disaster. Bread lines, racial hatred and massive use of force are the direct results of ideologies which purport to have all the answers. (I will avoid discussing the “salvation” promised by religious Utopians.)

In the realm of OD and change management, there is plenty of Utopianism, which expresses itself in stylish one size fits all models, universal truths and so called shared values. Utopian solutions come along with high priests who implement these total solutions.

Organizational utopianism is no less dangerous than political utopianism. Utopian organizational solutions breed cynicism, disengagement, sloganeering (which castrates communication) and exploitation. Total solutions for organizing end in disaster.

Organizing is very complex at the emotional level. There are no quick fixes, none whatsoever. An awareness of the inherent anxiety bred by organizing itself is probably the most important tool in the arsenal of organizational practitioner.

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Working with highly manipulative managers

Often senior managers are highly skilled in the act of manipulation.  As a matter of fact, it  is one of the very reasons that senior people reach the top.

Highly manipulative leaders/manager often commission consultants when manipulation is no longer effective. Most frequently this happens upon being promoted, or when there is a need for rapid change.

Influence and manipulation may look similar but there are major differences-

  • lack of intentional functional transparency
  • lack of consistency, e.g, measuring X and demanding Y. (Talk quality and measure speed)
  • built in need for escalation to get things done (very very common)

I do not want to quibble about what manipulation is because, like pornography, we know it when see it.

In this post I will give 6 guidelines about how to work with highly manipulative managers who commission consulting work.

  1. Be open about your own agenda. (I want to make money. I want to build my reputation, I hate failure) Exposing agendas models migrating away from manipulation.
  2. Do not be judgmental about manipulation. The client must understand that while manipulation may no longer work, it is not useful to  knock what he/she thinks brought him up through the ranks.
  3. Use the here and how to “expose” each and every manipulation that your client uses with you.
  4. I have found use of paradoxical interventions most useful with this population
  5. Provide useful  alternatives to manipulation, acknowledging that the alternatives to manipulation have unwanted side effects. (Kipnis and Pois are still relevant).
  6. Be fully transparent. Transparency is the ultimate mitigation mechanism of manipulation.


Helmut commissioned me to work with him on implementing an organizational change which is moving too slowly. Helmut has been  CEO for 6 months, and previously he was head of the European Sales Division.

Helmut has succeeded in every role he has had until now. His results have been  impeccable. This is no longer the case.

Helmut plays his various team members against once another. He gives the same task to  5 different people.He is purposely vague so that everyone is always guessing what he means.

In our initial meetings, Helmut was vague about what he wanted. Two other OD consultants were also involved, all with vague overlapping mandates. Helmut blamed me that I was not practical. In a long and heated 2 hour discussion, I called him on his manipulation and resigned. He re-hired me two days later, and he even  oked that I publish this post. Things are moving.  But I watch my back. 

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