It would create a map of your firm’s secret hierarchy

Sunday, May 2nd, 2021

When An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change came out in 1982, Charles Duhigg notes (in The Power of Habit), few people noticed, but its message became quite influential:

“Much of firm behavior,” they wrote, is best “understood as a reflection of general habits and strategic orientations coming from the firm’s past,” rather than “the result of a detailed survey of the remote twigs of the decision tree.”

For instance, every big company gives its employees a handbook with the formal rules of how the company works:

Now, imagine what you would tell a new colleague who asked for advice about how to succeed at your firm. Your recommendations probably wouldn’t contain anything you’d find in the company’s handbook. Instead, the tips you would pass along — who is trustworthy; which secretaries have more clout than their bosses; how to manipulate the bureaucracy to get something done — are the habits you rely on every day to survive. If you could somehow diagram all your work habits — and the informal power structures, relationships, alliances, and conflicts they represent — and then overlay your diagram with diagrams prepared by your colleagues, it would create a map of your firm’s secret hierarchy, a guide to who knows how to make things happen and who never seems to get ahead of the ball.


For an organization to work, leaders must cultivate habits that both create a real and balanced peace and, paradoxically, make it absolutely clear who’s in charge.


  1. Kirk says:

    Again and again, we come back to an essential point that seems to escape the overwhelming majority of our leaders and managers, a massive blind spot in their awareness and conceptualization of “how things work” within the organization and/or hierarchy they work within.

    There is the organization as it is formally conceived, and then there is the organization as it is, which is a more organic thing than many imagine. If you restrict yourself to the study of things as they exist in the imaginary realm of formal paperwork, you’ll never, ever get to the gist of how things actually proceed within your organization.

    There’s a bizarre parallel world out there, one that exists entirely in a twilight zone nobody really recognizes, and which few of us pay attention to.

    From my military experience, there are distinct organizational traits, meme-DNA if you will, that exist apart from the people making up the organization. You really notice it in dysfunctional ones, where you’ve known the players in other contexts and observe that where they might have been superior leaders, go-getters and “men who did things”, in the dysfunctional organization, they wound up dragged down to the level of their environment, no matter how hard they struggled against it.

    I’ve been in the exact same unit at the exact same installation doing the exact same job with totally different people separated by years and multiple turnovers of personnel. The amazing thing? The same issues and “organizational habits” were prevalent on all occasions, entirely independent of whose name was on the sign out front. After a bit, if you looked around yourself and paid attention, you’d start to think that there was a separate entity that made up the organization and its internal hierarchy, one that was far more influential than the individual men and women that made up the organization itself.

    Some of that may be down to environmental factors, things about the installation itself and the mission of the unit. However, the few times I was a part of an organization I’d been in before, one which had moved between stations or shifted missions…? Same things were observable. Same behaviors, same syndromes, different people demonstrating them. It was almost as if there were a separate entity, an overall parasitic gestalt with each unit, one that you simply could not overcome no matter how hard you tried, or how many of your peers were on board with you.

    Korea is like that for the US Army. You have a system wherein individuals are rotated in on an annual basis, and there’s a constant background churn to the personnel turnover. And, seemingly, there’s nothing you can do to “fix” the issues you find upon arrival, because the pattern and nature of existing conditions militate against you “making things right”. What one wiser senior NCO advised me was to pick out one thing that really annoyed me about what was going on around me, and to try to fix that one thing, ignoring everything else. If I managed to positively influence that one thing, well… Then, I could count my year-long tour in Korea a success.

    The fascinating thing about all of this is that nobody notices it. It’s an environmental factor, like a disagreeable odor you become used to, and which only the newly-exposed are even going to notice: “Geez, this is ‘effing stupid… Why do we do things like this…?” being what the newly assigned say, and the response they invariably get is a set of shrugged shoulders and “Well, that’s just the way things are… We’ve always done it this way…”.

    You start out railing against the idiocy, and end by being a part of it. If you’re at all self-aware, which most people are not, then you’ll find yourself ruefully laughing at your own hypocrisy. Or, going quite mad in white linen… Your choice.

    Me, I found the whole thing fascinating. What’s really bizarre is to observe the competent men you knew in one context transposed to another wherein they were “part of the problem”, and then to see them again in another situation, years later, where they were again demonstrating competence and success. You’d also see cases where there were men who were successful and able in the dysfunctional organization who’d never been successful anywhere in the past, and who were utter failures again when encountered later on, but who thrived in the dysfunction and chaos of the situation where everyone else was useless. It was quite disorienting, sometimes–I knew guys who “colonized” Korea, extending again and again, so that they’d spend years on station. Then, I’d run into them again, years later, stateside, and where they’d been functional and successful in Korea, stateside they were disasters.

    All of this stuff should be a subject for intense study and research, but nobody is interested. It’s as if you’re trying to tell the fish that they really ought to study the water they swim in, in order to understand the world, but the fish are utterly uninterested because, so far as they can make out, the water is just “there”, and not a fit subject for study…

  2. VXXC says:

    “If I managed to positively influence that one thing, well… Then, I could count my year-long tour in Korea a success.”

    Same story. That’s Korea alright.

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