The Growth Trap: How the Desire for Business Expansion Leads to Corporate Conformity
In my experience as a culture coach, too often I’ve seen clients whose relentless pursuit for growth and expansion has led them unwittingly into a pattern of ‘corporate conformity’.
Corporate conformity is a tendency to add in all sorts of rules, policies and procedures that ultimately cripple agility, and create a bureaucratic workplace culture. This transformation is subtle but insidious, and recognising it is the first step towards preventing it. And trust me, it’s something you want to prevent.
As a default way of operating, corporate conformity is understandable. After all, growth feels scary, and especially when growth feels like it’s becoming an uncontrollable beast. The knee jerk reaction for growing businesses is to put in as many controls as possible, to feel like you’re in control. Whether that’s controls in the sense of layers of management, or written rules and policies.
But as soon as this begins to happen innovation stalls. People feel tied to rigid ways of working. And before you know it, the growth you were experiencing begins to falter.
I want to share in this feature some of the common mistakes that businesses make which lead them down this dark path, and offer up some alternatives for what can be chosen instead.
Growth doesn’t mean that things must be ‘done a certain way’, that’s a belief system which has become too common in a world where people keep selling business success blueprints; as if there’s one way, and only one, which will help you reach the holy grail of growth.
Corporate conformity to some, may sound like just a sensible, and grown-up way of running a business. However, as you’ll see below, this leaning towards more control is only an illusion. And what sits behind this instead, is outdated mindsets and ways of working that only hinder and harm performance.
So, let’s get the painful bit over with and start with the mistakes.
Adding in Layers of Management
There’s nothing quite as outdated as management. (I’m sorry managers but it’s the truth.)
The old mindset of needing people to manage people harks back to a Victorian era, where there was a strict belief that people need to be controlled and deserve to be controlled. But we don’t live in the Victorian era, and the way we need to lead and work together has dramatically changed since the industrial revolution.
What happens now when we add in layers of management is we too often end up with micro-management, which limits people’s capacity to not only think for themselves but also to participate in a meaningful way.
Managers who focus on maintaining control, and try to minimize risk, only create an environment where people feel like caged animals, unable to voice their opinions or ideas, and restricted to monotonous, purposeless work.
It’s no wonder that Gallup reports have constantly revealed that people leave their jobs not because of the company, but because of their manager.
When growth starts to accelerate, it’s common to see companies become more hierarchical and bureaucratic, with layers upon layers of management. Compliance wins over creativity, and gradually the business becomes less adaptive, and less responsive to change.
One of the unintended consequences of this now rigid hierarchical structure is a slowed decision-making process. Decisions that could be made quickly at lower levels have to be deferred up the chain of command, leading to delays, a loss of agility, and potentially missed opportunities.
Becoming Overly Professional
What is it about corporate conformity that also leads businesses to the belief that we have to stamp out any individualism in the company?
Rather than enabling people to feel themselves and show up in an authentic way, organisations start to roll out cloning policies that tell people how to dress, how to email, and even how to behave. It’s dehumanising, and only sends a message to people that they are not valued as the individuals they are.
Standardising practices is one thing, health and safety another, but becoming authoritative under the guise of ‘professionalism’ is utter business nonsense.
Like the many corporates we all quickly condemn, this over professionalising leads from one thing to another, and before you know it, privileges begin to emerge, and an attitude of them vs. us sets in.
Your culture no longer becomes a place of innovation because people fear being themselves or thinking differently. You’ve destroyed any element of psychological safety, and instead created an oppressive environment which doesn’t respect diversity at any level.
Over Reliance on Policies and Procedures
We can’t deny that as a business grows, the complexity of operations increases. To control this, businesses tend to develop detailed policies and procedures which is seen as a safety net to minimise risk.
As many of us have probably experienced, most of these procedures and policies are useless and start to inhibit flexibility and independent decision-making. And let’s be honest, most people end up ignoring them because they are either too long, or full of utter jargon.
Some of these procedures even become almost juvenile and silly. For example, having to sign out a pen from the stationery cupboard. I’ve heard many of these stories in my time.
Too many policies and procedures end up creating bureaucracy, and silos within the company. There is often such enforcement of these strict policies that the smallest deviation from the rules puts a black mark against a person’s name, and before they know it, the judgement call they made, no matter how rational, is criticised because it wasn’t done by the book.
And let’s not start with the fact that too often these rules are created from top-management and then rolled down to the team. A true message of “we make the rules, and you follow them.”
These controls won’t help your growth, they will kill it. And before you know it, like many of the bloated businesses out there one day you’ll discover that people’s engagement is at an all-time low, and you’re no longer the most competitive product or service on the market.
So how do you avoid this corporate conformity and the comfort blanket of controls?
We must choose alternative controls. Under the Semco Style framework, this is a core principle. We need speed to adapt, and to move quickly, but we also need clear boundaries so that with the speed we don’t have a painful crash.
Here’s a few practical ways that you can still maintain safety and boundaries within your company culture, without defaulting to corporate conformity.
Write, erase and rewrite the rules together.
Empower people to challenge processes and how things are done. Your policies should be open for all to see, and there should be a clear way in which people can bring forward new ideas or iterations. If you’re just beginning to evolve the way you work together during your growth, then co-create your rules, and review them regularly so that they’re still fit for purpose.
Create norms and boundaries.
What’s ok, and what’s not ok? Sometimes the obvious isn’t obvious, so we need to have a dialogue around our expectations of each other and how we work together. Common sense differs from person to person and so laying down some norms can help the company avoid any confusion or misunderstandings.
Place decision-making power with people who are closest to the problem. Create more participative and democratic methods of decision-making which enables those impacted by decisions to have a voice. There are many decision-making frameworks which enable teams to make decisions, rather than having to send every decision to the top of the company.
Talk about control.
Before you begin any of these practices a good starting place might be to talk about control. To lessen its grip and draw it out. That way people can feel into this much more deeply and get a felt sense for what is needed. Both as leaders and teams. After all, I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any controls. What we’re looking for is an alternative that works for everyone and doesn’t stifle the teams ability to get their work done to the best of their ability.
Try these questions on for size during a team session;
What does control mean to us?
What’s the fear that sits behind our desire for more controls?
What happens when thing go wrong, how will we deal with it?
This is just a handful of ways to avoid corporate conformity, and edge you towards a new belief that the way you work, doesn’t have to be one way. Together, you create what works for you as a team and as a business. Want to discover a new way of working as you grow, book in a call and let’s talk about your evolution.