How to avoid the organizational flu

Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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This year’s flu season is shaping up to be the worst since 2009, which rudely interrupted the lives of 34 million Americans, sent more than 700,000 people to the hospital and killed more than 50,000. Just as it’s supposed to start tailing off, reports say it may be getting worse. As anybody who’s ever been waylaid by a raging fever, aching muscles, and a hacking cough knows, you don’t want to mess with it.

Unfortunately, as long as humans operate in close proximity we’re going to infect one another. That’s where the term “communicable disease” comes from, and communicability can be as dangerous to an organization as it is to an organism.

One way to understand health is as an incessant war against things that are trying to kill us. Our bodies come into contact with a wide variety of germs every day which proliferate and attack until stopped. When a vigorous immune system successfully defends the body from marauding invaders, the resulting stasis is defined as health. But it’s a never-ending battle.

My firm’s research discovered four common “germs” that continually lurk within organizations -- destructive internal dynamics that can easily cause a business to be bedridden. They are management misalignment, loss of focus, lack of nerve and strategic inconsistency. As with real germs, they’re ever-present at some level, even within thriving companies. The primary task is to keep them contained.

How to avoid an outbreak? The best form of treatment is prevention, so knowing what to watch out for is the first step.

Organizational germs

A few years ago, I received a call from the chief marketing officer of an iconic retail brand who was interested in me speaking to his management team after having read my first book, "When Growth Stalls: How it Happens, Why You’re Stuck and What to Do About It." Knowing the company’s track record, I politely replied that while I’d be honored to address them, I wasn’t sure why they would be interested -- after all, the company seemed to be doing just fine.

His response? “We are. We want to know how to stay that way.”

Smart. And rare, unfortunately. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that getting vaccinated cuts your risk of getting the flu by 36% this year. The same benefit can accrue to companies that seek to strengthen their immune systems against common and destructive internal dynamics. Alas, most organizations don’t take action until they have a fever, at which point there’s no avoiding the suffering.

That’s where rapid intervention becomes critical. If left unchecked, productivity will plummet, progress will grind to a halt, and discord, drift, fear and/or flailing will inevitably infect the broader corporate body. That’s when the flu can become the plague.

If you’re noticing even mild symptoms of organizational flu -- the inability to agree on important decisions, whisperers in the hallway, passive-aggressive behavior -- the worst thing you can do is ignore them. If you’re the one feeling unwell you must recognize, isolate and address the issue. Iif it’s others who are ailing, you must confront them to keep the contamination from spreading. Left untreated, it will almost certainly get out of hand.

Just as a healthy body can dispense with pesky everyday bacteria, when things are going well it’s easy to overlook internal missteps, miscommunications and minor misunderstandings. But when the storm hits, when the stress rises, when the corporate immune system gets depressed for whatever reason, contagion can overtake the enterprise. Don’t let it happen.

Centuries ago, we had no idea how diseases passed from one person to another. Now we know. Suffice it to say that good hygiene can go a long way in preventing unwanted outbreaks of any kind.