About invisible garden fences

Cave canem!

If you have a dog with an uncontrollable desire for freedom, but at the same time you don't have the possibility to build a garden fence (or don't want to), you have a problem. And because there seem to be enough people with this problem, resourceful people with little sensitivity for healthy animal education have come up with a technical solution: the invisible garden fence. This consists of an antenna wire laid in the garden, which is connected to a transmitting station, and a matching collar. When the dog approaches the wire, it gets registered and the animal is subjected to electric shocks until it leaves the "forbidden zone". The idea behind this invention is that over time the dog learns and maintains its limits without causing an electric shock. In the "ideal case" one could even switch off the current at some point because the dog has internalized the invisible borders.

We don't need such collars in interpersonal relationships because we have much more sophisticated methods of locking ourselves in behind invisible fences: norms and taboos. Many are so invisible that we don't even notice them in our daily lives. And very many also have a good reason to exist. It makes sense that it's not welcome to show up at a meeting drunk and armed to the teeth. Unless you're a pirate.


We are our own garden fence

Standards and taboos fence in the area of the socially acceptable and thus ensure a more or less smooth coexistence. We need certain agreements, rules and also prohibitions, whether they are unspoken and implicit or not. And in the course of our socialization we learn not only to accept them, but also to maintain them actively. We are also taught the consequences of crossing borders. So, we are our own garden fence, regardless of the context in which we operate: be it society as a whole, an organization or a team. Only the rules and taboos differ, as does the type of enforcement. Because they have been practiced, internalized and handed down over a long period of time, they can be persistent - even if they no longer make sense or the invisible fence has long since been shut down, i.e. the context and the underlying rules have changed.

The paradigm shift towards a self-organized way of working, which is currently taking place in many organizations, has to struggle with precisely such internalized norms and taboos. This is primarily not a problem of theories and concepts in the sense that they are not understood. Much more employees have been trained over many years for the presence of invisible wires. But to blame an ominous "organization" in general would be wrong. Because that would mean that there is a kind of corporate god somewhere who, by omnipotent decree, makes rules and prohibitions rain down on the common people. The tendency to blame higher hierarchical levels for a dysfunctional corporate culture obscures the fact that we are all in the same boat.

The problem is far more complex: we all carry the rules that need to be broken within ourselves in order to bring about meaningful change. And we also keep them alive, even when we are not even aware of them. This leads, for example, to the question of what a team can decide for itself when it is confronted with the new situation, to "be allowed" to decide for itself from now on. The fear of electric shock is omnipresent. And unfortunately, all too often quite justifiably so.

When restructuring hierarchy and authority in organizations, these rules also become noticeable. A change in the hierarchical structure does not mean that this is also reflected in the behavior of those "affected". The approach of "culture follows structure" may be correct, but this presupposes the learning of new norms and taboos that must be created together. Even if the structural change is also fully supported by "former" line managers, this does not mean that behavior patterns that have been trained for years - whose existence we are often not even aware of - disappear from one day to the next. This can express itself in very concrete situations: How is criticism expressed? Do I talk to my former superior in the same way and with the same openness as with someone with whom I have always been hierarchically equal? What weight does the opinion of a former supervisor have in team decisions etc.?

It sometimes takes a lot of painstaking detailed work to first make these learned rules visible. It can also be risky: pointing out taboos can already be a breach of taboo, even if they no longer serve a meaningful purpose. The presence of an external perspective can be helpful here, in the form of new colleagues who first learn the existing rules and limits - implicit as well as explicit - and then, if there is sufficient openness, help shape them anew. By (unintentionally) crossing over various garden fences, these are made conscious again to those who originally laid them out or at least internalized them.


Horror stories & guilty pleasures

Change agents, in whatever role they perform this task, should see it as one of their main activities to point out precisely these internalized rules and also to question their meaningfulness. They should also ask themselves the question to what extent they contribute - perhaps even against their better knowledge - to the preservation of these rules and taboos. Transformation in organizations lives from reflection - also on an individual level. But not only. It is not enough just to see things differently or to think differently if one still displays the same behavior while maintaining one's own allotment garden. Change also means lived irritation. If you don't take this to heart, its impact is limited to having told only one more story, albeit with perhaps exciting content. But the stories of change agents are the "guilty pleasures" of unwilling decision-makers and organizations: Sometimes a bit creepy and irritating, but always with the potential for a romantic happy ending. As if a perverse mixture of Rosamunde Pilcher and Stephen King were fabulating about the Japanese car industry or Swedish music service providers. And when the story is over, the book is put back on the shelf, and you can devote yourself to more urgent things.
Those who really want to change norms will have to find out for themselves if there are still fences and where they are located. But this won't be possible without the risk of electric shocks.

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