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How to Prevent Outbreaks of Chaos in the Workplace.

Updated on January 14, 2022
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I'm a management coach. My purpose is to help build workplace cultures F.I.T. for purpose in the 21st Century.

What is an outbreak of chaos in the workplace?

An outbreak of chaos in the workplace can be thought of as a mini-state of disorder and confusion. When people talk about "fire fighting" at work, they are probably referring to their attempts at controlling and dealing with outbreaks of chaos.

Chaos in the workplace occurs when the demands of the task at hand outweigh an individual's competence, resulting in a job performance failure. This is often accompanied by a breakdown in human relationships.

Without good working relationships, communication, teamwork and problem solving are severely stifled. Creativity and innovation become impossible.

The Fido ad gives a great example of what can happen when chaos breaks out in the workplace.

Trying to cope with an outbreak of chaos in the workplace is often referred to as "fire fighting".
Trying to cope with an outbreak of chaos in the workplace is often referred to as "fire fighting". | Source

What are the outcomes of chaos in the workplace?

Here are some of the things I have witnessed:

  • Defective/incorrect products have gone all the way to the customer.
  • Very high value products have been totally destroyed before leaving the manufacturing/distribution area.
  • Products sent to the wrong customer.
  • Whole batches of products scrapped part way through production.
  • Hostility/violence between people.
  • People going on long-term "sick"/work-related stress leave.
  • High rates of absenteeism.
  • High rates of annual staff turnover (one company I worked for was over 40 percent).

Chaos in the workplace results in wasted time, wasted effort and wasted resources.

With continued outbreaks of chaos in the workplace, people lose sight of their objectives; there is a loss of purpose. People also lose their sense of direction. Worst of all however, is the organisation's loss of integrity. Leaders and managers are seen as incompetent by staff and perceived as untrustworthy. The "us and them" divide is strengthened.

Moving from chaos to order.

To prevent outbreaks of chaos occurring in the future means undertaking a journey of change.

Over the last few years I have come to the conclusion that there are three main obstacles to the learning/change process:

  • The organisation's failure to gain the willing cooperation of learners in the change process.
  • The learner's failure to believe that the organisation's future can be different from the past.
  • Both parties' inaccurate perceptions of the status quo.

In the past, organisation's have concentrated their efforts on providing training inputs. In the future, organisation's must facilitate learning outcomes.

This will mean looking at the learning and change process from a completely new and radically different perspective.

If we are to move from chaos to order in the workplace, we need a new learning paradigm; creating an environment where learning and change occur as naturally as breathing.

A tale of two paradigms.

The efficiency paradigm is rooted in principles of Scientific Management. It works from the top, down. It begins with theory and ends in practice. The efficiency paradigm employs deductive reasoning and collects quantitative data. It tends to treat people as parts of a machine.

The efficiency paradigm is built and run with:

  • Hierarchy.
  • Formal use of power and authority.
  • Routine and mechanistic ways of working.
  • Predominance of one-way communication.

A perfect picture of the efficiency paradigm at work is the production line.

The efficiency paradigm is totally focussed on doing things right.

On the other hand the effectiveness paradigm is rooted in the Human Relations Movement. It works from the bottom, up. It begins in practice and ends with theory. The effectiveness paradigm employs inductive reasoning and collects qualitative data.

The effectiveness paradigm is built and run with:

  • No hierarchy.
  • Interpersonal influence.
  • "Organic" ways of working.
  • Continuous dialogue.

A perfect picture of the effectiveness paradigm at work is the ant colony. Although an ant has no leader, ruler or overseer, it knows exactly what to do at any given time in any circumstance. An ant always knows exactly what to do for the benefit of the colony.

The effectiveness paradigm is totally focussed on doing the right things.

The road race bike is structured for efficiency.
The road race bike is structured for efficiency. | Source
The downhill race bike is structured for effectiveness.
The downhill race bike is structured for effectiveness. | Source

The relationship between structure and purpose.

Structure must facilitate purpose otherwise effort becomes futile and time and money are wasted.

We can see how structure changes to facilitate purpose in bicycles. All bicycles have the same general idea behind them, but the structure, the design and arrangement of its constituent parts will vary according to purpose.

What I have in mind here are the differences between the kind of road race bike used in the Tour-de-France and the bikes that are used in downhill (down mountain) racing.

A road race bike is built for efficiency. It's designed to maximise the rider's strength into forward motion on a stable and highly predictable surface.

On the other hand a downhill bike is designed for effectiveness. It's designed to maximise the rider's control on the bike on an unstable and highly unpredictable surface.

To use a downhill bike in the Tour-de-France would be futile. To use a road race bike to come down a mountain would be suicide!

The top-down/bottom-up discussion and the LEADS framework.

The top-down/bottom-up discussion seems to have been going on for quite some time now, however, in my work experience, very little seems to have changed. Our "efficiency" paradigm mindset still holds the upper hand.

A couple of years ago I came across the LEADS framework, developed as a means of transforming Health Care services in Canada. Seeing as those "at the top" are committing to this framework, perhaps this could be a way of promoting a paradigm shift in the workplace. I am thinking this way because the first tenet of this framework is, "Lead Self".

Leading self sets the responsibility for change firmly with the individual whatever job they do and wherever they are in an organisation.

It is my firm belief that the leading of self then facilitates the change process.

  • Lead Self.
  • Engage Others.
  • Achieve Results.
  • Develop Coalitions.
  • Systems Transformation.

I see the LEADS framework as a great opportunity for preventing outbreaks of chaos in the workplace, people moving from working like a production line to working like an ant colony.

Finally, I want to outline a means to beginning the "Leading Self" process, with each individual in the workplace taking responsibility for developing their own competence.

To better explain what I have in mind here, we can look at the motor car engine and how it has been continuously improved over the last 40 years or so.

A car engine represents individual competence in the workplace, an organisation will not get very far without it.
A car engine represents individual competence in the workplace, an organisation will not get very far without it. | Source

Developing individual competence: Lessons from the motor car engine.

Car engines today, compared to 40 years ago are far superior in every way. They are quieter, smoother, more reliable and more efficient. Their longevity has improved many times over.

This has happened primarily because car engine manufacturers are far better at putting the theory of engine design into practice. Getting better at putting theory into practice is a picture of staff development; the systematic development of competence.

For a person to grow and change takes time. Having worked with people as a trainer and a coach I am convinced that developing competence in people (facilitating a change in behaviour) involves engaging, equipping and empowering individuals in their own learning and development processes.

One of the best ways I have found to do this is to ask five goal/objective related questions:

  1. These are the goals/objectives you are working towards, what do these goals mean to you? (What would their accomplishment mean for the organisation, the customer, your department, your team and for you personally?)
  2. What needs to happen for these goals to be accomplished? (Who needs to be involved, what do the need to know, what do they need to be able to do?)
  3. What are you doing to reach the goals? (what knowledge, skills and experience do you employ?)
  4. What problems and difficulties are you experiencing trying to reach the goals?
  5. How do the training opportunities available to you help you work towards the goals? (Please describe ways in which you see the training helping you?)

These questions are designed to gain an individual's willing participation in the staff development process.


Final thoughts.

I grew up listening to my Father's tales of woe in the workplace, his experiences with outbreaks of chaos.Seeing his unhappiness with work had a profound effect on me. As a young man I committed myself to doing something about it.

Forty-plus years later, I am writing this article. My hope is that some how in some way I can make a difference in the working lives of men and women.

To be bluntly honest, I have had enough of outbreaks of chaos in the workplace. It has worn me out. Now I am making a stand for what i believe needs to change, and I hope you will see enough here to want to make a stand with me.

The time for talking about change in the workplace is ending. Now we need to take action.

It's time for us to launch into a new and different future.


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