Organizational insularity is politically color-blind

Tunnel vision. Circling the wagons. Willful ignorance. The terms have different meanings, but they represent prongs of a core problem: Organizational insularity.

On Sunday, Robert Reich — former U.S. Secretary of Labor and now a professor (UC-Berkeley) and public affairs commentator — posted this on his Facebook page:

I’m a fan of the President’s, but I worry about the insularity and distrust of outsiders that seems to pervade the White House — not unlike the insularity and paranoia that gripped the Nixon White House. The Obama administration’s obsession with leaks has led to more than twice as many prosecutions as there were in all previous administrations combined. Its relentlessness has extended to demanding that reporters provide the names of their sources, wiretapping, and aggressively pursuing all leakers. And like Nixon, Obama relies on a close-knit group of advisers; most of his Cabinet is invisible, and there’s little or no access by or outreach to others. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting Obama shares Nixon’s beliefs or personality failings. But the parallels are striking, and they frankly worry me. A democracy requires a vigilant press, an informed public, and a president who continually reaches outward for new perspectives and constructive criticism.

I’m not quoting Reich to spur a dialogue on the current Administration. Rather, I think his words capture how organizational insularity and paranoia are not determined by political leanings. And ported over to workplaces generally, it’s why these qualities are present in the business, non-profit, and public sectors alike.

Of course, the opposite is when organizational leaders are so indecisive that they listen to everyone and go in multiple, sometimes inconsistent directions at once.

Both extremes are indicative of insecurity and a lack of direction.

Organizations and leaders should aim for that elusive sweet spot, balancing confidence in their agenda with inclusivity and a willingness to listen to critics. On some matters, you’ll know your stuff well enough to have a position, idea, or program that you’re committed to for the long haul, even in the face of contrary opinions. On other occasions, it may be helpful to cast a wider net. In any event, if you start pursuing your perceived critics and opponents obsessively, then it’s time to pull back and reset.

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