Organizational Kabuki

I am employed by a large government agency and I was recently given the opportunity to participate in what I like to call participation kabuki. Participation kabuki is when an organization desires to make a show of soliciting input from throughout the organization. Typically a committee is formed to organize the desired input. The committee is usually led by a high-level manager. When this is not the case the responsibility of leading the committee is given to someone considered trustworthy by executive management; that is, someone who for whatever reason is not expected to make waves or create issues for management.

The most frequent giveaway that the committee or workgroup or task force or whatever they call it is participation kabuki is when the leaders state that the group is designed to present ideas to management. At that point, management decides how to proceed and can reject whatever was presented to them wholesale.

In the end, these exercises provide cover to management. If they provide any useful feedback, management can loudly announce that they heard what was said and decided to implement the wonderful ideas presented by the committee. More often than not, the response is that there were no suitable or practical ideas presented to them and they were forced to pursue different objectives. In the end it is a large amount of effort expended towards outcomes that management had planned to ignore from the outset.

The are other forms of organizational kabuki. I live in California; land of earthquakes. Each year we participate in the Great Shakeout. For those who don’t know, this is an annual earthquake drill. It is announced months in advance. At the predetermined time on the announced date my employer expects that we employees will participate by pretending there is an earthquake and getting under our desks; much like we would during an actual earthquake.

This is not a bad thing. For organizations that have to respond to an actual earthquake (police and fire departments, hospitals, and essential services providers), it is an opportunity to test their systems and coordinate between themselves. The organization I work for does not provide essential services.

I call this preparedness kabuki. We participate so management can announce that we participated each year. Management can also point to this as providing emergency training to employees.

I have lived in California my entire life. I have participated in unannounced drills since I was a kid. I have watched commercials and public service announcements that explain what actions should be taken during an earthquake. I have also experienced and survived many earthquakes. Participating in the great shakeout does not me feel any more prepared than I would have had I not participated. Further, I am aware of people who schedule time off on the day of the Great Shakeout for the sole purpose of avoiding it.

The point of all this is that organizational kabuki represents a real conflict between the actions of management and the needs of people, be they employees or clients, or bystanders. Organizational kabuki allows management to pretend it is meeting the needs of people without forcing them to expend resources or energy to do so. It also serves to legitimize management decisions by allowing them to pretend they listened to the concerns of people affected. Organizational kabuki is a form of structural violence. Any activities directed by management that provide no avenues for management accountability are simply boondoggles designed to make you think they care about you.

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