10 Organisational Behaviours Stuck in the Industrial Era

In another post, ‘Creating an Organisational Culture for the Age of Ideas’, we argued that the culture of many organisations is still unthinkingly based on the old industrial-era mindset of scientific management and command and control. We suggested that there are a number of persistent organisational behaviors that have their origins in this outmoded culture that are now actively preventing the things that modern organisations know they most need: employee engagement, commitment and creativity, for example. This idea was fully explored in our book, My Steam Engine Is Broken: Taking the organisation from the industrial era to the age of ideas.

The book was based on Mark Powell’s twenty years’ experience in management and strategy consultancy and on his ten-year experience of designing and running leadership and management development programmes at the University of Oxford. More precisely, the book was the result of Mark’s thousands of conversations with people at all levels of organisations large and small, and across several different cultures. The end result was the identification of ten organisational ‘paradoxes’ – behaviors intended to advance the organisation’s interests that are often experienced by employees in a negative way. The behaviors are paradoxical because they tend to produce results that are the exact opposite of what the organisation sets out to achieve.

In this article there is only enough space to give a short description of these ten paradoxical behaviours and their unintended outcomes, but we think that this will be enough to give you a good insight into our thinking. We all tend to recognize these industrial-era organisational behaviors, just as we also instinctively recognise what ‘good’ behaviors would look like, and why.

Ten paradoxes of organisational behavior


Management seeks control, but control can be experienced as removing autonomy and preventing self-organisation and innovation. Managers gain ‘control’ but lose commitment and creative input.


Control requires measurements and indicators, but these can become obsessive, short-termist and even misleading. More importantly, when we try to ‘measure’ people with techniques similar to those that we use to measure processes, people feel labelled, diminished and manipulated.


Mechanical and logistical processes must be as efficient as possible, but it’s different when people are involved. Some petty ‘efficiencies’ impact people very negatively, saving a few dollars at an immeasurable cost in lost energy.


Organisations know that they need to innovate, but much organisational behaviour is specifically designed to prevent it. Innovative thinking is ‘risky’, by definition, and the ‘control’ mindset hates risk.


Communication is a dialogue, not a set of instructions and most organisational modes of communication are not genuine dialogues: information ‘cascades’ down imaginary pyramids; meetings create an illusion of real debate. ‘Communication’ seems to be increasing in volume and declining in quality.

Physical environment

Workspaces should be designed to encourage good communication, chance encounters and the flow of ideas. Industrial-era workspaces are designed to keep individuals in their allocated, functional space and enable supervision.


People are rarely allowed to organize their own work. When they are, the results can be remarkable, as shown in this Harvard Business Review paper on GE Aviation’s move to a ‘teaming’ work structure.


Leadership should be devolved, but is often hoarded. Everyone should be encouraged to lead whenever their natural leadership skills are most appropriate and valuable.


New ideas tend to happen at boundaries, when people from different parts of the organisation reach out and interact, but few organisations manage to enable productive networking throughout the whole operation. The industrial-era organisation sees ‘networks’ as connections to be exploited; real networks are organic and mutually beneficial.

Diversity of opinion

Organisations tend to become homogenous environments where contrarians are unwelcome. Diversity of gender and ethnicity is no guarantee of true diversity of opinion; like any ecosystem, organisations need a real diversity of ideas to evolve and survive in a rapidly changing environment.

Little by little, piece by piece

In our book, as in our earlier post, we argued that the process that was most likely to succeed in transforming organisational cultures was one of changing behaviors ‘little by little and piece by piece’ – identifying the outmoded behavior patterns that are doing the most damage to the organisation’s culture and tackling them one by one. We also believe that improvements made to any one aspect of organisational behavior are highly likely to spill over onto other behaviors – once we realise that we are not communicating effectively, to take one example, it may become obvious that we are not networking effectively either; or that our leadership is hierarchical rather than devolved, which is why we are preventing self-organisation . . . once the flaw in one behavior is recognised and addressed, the implications can ripple out through the organisation quite rapidly.

Energising organisational cultures

We hope that the ‘ten paradoxical behaviors’ described here might be a useful starting point for organisations setting out to explore which behaviors they might most need to change in order to create an enabling, empowering culture fit for the age of ideas. We can make intellectual decisions about what we would like our organisational culture to be, but the foundation of those cultures is the set of behaviors, often unwittingly inherited from our relatively recent process of industrialisation, that we enact each day at work without considering their impact on our colleagues and the consequent effect on the organisation’s energy level. Change those behaviors, and you energise the culture.

A version of this article first appeared on CultureUniversity.com