When Business is Incontinent

No, not that kind of incontinence.

The term is also used in philosophy to describe a certain situation (I’m reaching back a few decades on this one, so someone check me) roughly like this:

He knows what the good is; he knows that he ought to do the good; there is nothing standing in the way of his doing the good; and he wants to do the good. Yet he does that which is wrong.

As I recall, Aristotle’s explanation was, roughly:

That’s silly. If he didn’t do it, then it’s just because either he didn’t really want to do it or something prevented him from doing it.

Plato’s—which I greatly prefer—was:

That’s life. That’s the beauty and the idiocy and the pain of being human.

David Maister’s recent post What Gets Fat Smokers on the Diet? reminded me of this issue. David’s topic had to do with what prevents organizational change.

My take on the subject is that both personal and corporate change are similar to dealing with addictions: it takes repeated attempts, which in aggregate show improvement, but which in particular instances are weak. And there are no guarantees.

Best practices, in personal as well as organizational life, probably include:

> envisioning—constantly keeping in mind goals, outcomes, tangible pictures of the desired to-be state of affairs

> specific next steps—tactics, mantras, tips and tricks that move the ball in the generally right direction

> no-no’s—things that are warning signs of "bad" behavior, a la if you don’t want to get hit by trains, don’t play on the tracks

> values—a clear set of guiding principles, enunciated frequently by people who understand them and practice them

> a medium-to-long-term view of the world that infects all behaviors—negotiating, pricing, relationship management, compensation, investment evaluations

> a strong preference for intrinsic motivational approaches over extrinsic approaches. Getting people to behave in ways that support others by giving them money (in effect, paying them to be unselfish) is as close to oxymoronic as you can get.

> at the suggestion of Stuart Cross I’d add one more: A sudden shock – for an organization this may be a decline in profits, the loss of a customer, the entrance of a serious new competitor, a price war, or a rise in costs. In addiction, it’s a divorce, a disinheritance, a DWI, a death in the family (ever notice how many disasters being with the letter D?).

For change in corporate life, the challenge is to generate the powerful motivational effects of, say, a tragic car accident—but through genteel, socially acceptable means like corporate training programs.

The mother of the new boy in kindergarten says to the teacher, "Johnny is very sensitive. If he does something wrong, just slap the child next to him—he’ll get the message."

But Johnny Adult isn’t quite so sensitive. And the Adult Next to Him tends to hit back. It’s hard to change habits; it’s hard to change thinking; it’s hard to change incontinence.

It’s almost enough to believe Aristotle.


But not quite.

0 replies
  1. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hi Charlie,

    It’s interesting you allude to addictions vis-a-vis change. I’ve been writing elsewhere on the notion of "collusion" that supports addictions and other inappropriate behaviors.

    One of the most insidious and destructive workplace (and life, in general) behaviors impacting life at work,and auguring against change is collusion. Collusion, as I and my coaching clients work with it, is defined as two people each co-opting their true and real self in order to support their own and the other’s falseness, fakeness and phoniness, or in this case, one’s inability to change or consider change.

    One result of colluding is that neither person "shows up" in integrity or authentically when it come to change, or changing (short of, as you say, a Universal slap across the face, wake-up call, that "now you have no choice but to change", e.g., accident, death, bankruptcy…)

    Johnny Adult as you call him, when it comes to change, is frequently Johnny Child (3-4-5, emotionally), albeit in an adult body wearing adult clothes. So, little Johnny becomes reactive to change as his fears take over and resistance sets in in the form of fear (the body) and doubt (the mind). Fight, flight or freeze reactivity prevents change.

    For me, no amount of visioning, training, or other efforts will produce real change (willing change, not "kicking and screaming compliance"), until, on the individual level, one consciously takes a look at one’s resistance (read: fear on many levels) to change. The collusion is that two folks on either end of change will "play at" change perhaps in a "safe" way, a  minor effort here, a band-aid there, while denying  and resisting what really needs to happen, because it’s too scary.

    OK, so only drink on the weekends, only hit her with an open hand, don’t smoke in bed, and I’ll cave and look the other way and we can both live with one another as phonies and fakes and live the appearance of friendship, change, etc. Collusion.

    Many change efforts are just this…make-believe, symptomatic solutions, while folks collude to look  the other way and resist taking a hard and conscious look at the serious root cause issues that call for change.  When folks stop colluding, then maybe true and real change efforts can take precedence.

  2. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    I find your concept of "collusion" very interesting and accurate.  It is also very close to what the addition crowd would call enabling, I believe. 
    Is that a parallel concept?  I think your idea of collusion is broader and more generally applicable.  But again, the parallel is interesting.
    You are in my opinion absolutely right–whether it’s collusion or enabling, it’s involving another person in a systematic attempt to avoid facing truth and responsibility on one’s own.

  3. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:


    You say, "It is also very close to what the addiction crowd would call enabling, I believe.  Is that a parallel concept?"

    I think they’re flavors of the same behavior. For me in my work, colluding is often more conscious and takes on the patina of fraud.

    When colluding, we allow ourself and the other person to run our respective "personality program" i.e.,  the self-destructive, self-sabotaging and limiting behaviors and beliefs we use in order to gain acceptance, approval, recognition, and control,  so we can feel emotionally safe.

    Collusion is like saying (only not out loud), "I’m going to let you behave the way you want or need to so I can feel good about our relationship even though I know my behavior and your behavior are (for example) inappropriate, self-destructive, out of integrity", etc.

    So, in this context, we’re not looking at collusion that one would commonly associate with what we know as "fraud", but this type of workplace collusion is fraudulent insofar as I am living a lie and supporting another to live his/her lie. It’s "fraud" on a deeper, inner heart and soul level as it relates to who I am and how I am in my relationship(s).

    Enabling, to split hairs, seems to me to be more on the surface and reactive…while colluding is deeper, and really is a conscious, responsive act….but, that’s just me.

  4. Jeff Cullen
    Jeff Cullen says:

    A remarkable article, and thought provoking responses.

    On several occasions during the last year I have been able to observe or participate in momumental workplace upheavals. In each case, that old chestnut, "Conventional Wisdom" has been tosssed about. In reading this article, in relation to organisational change, I was once again reminded of Galbraith’s comments:

    " We associate truth with convenience, with what most closely accords with self-interest and individual well-being or promises best to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life.
    We adhere, as though to a raft, to those ideas which represent our understanding."
    I like your discussion between enabling and colluding. Unfortunately, all too often in many organisations, when the child next to little Johnny is slapped, the loud messgae for Johnny is to start slapping the kid next to him as well. Eventually, Johnny has slapped everyone next to him.  I guess at that point he truly becomes incontinent….in the modern sense.
  5. therapydoc
    therapydoc says:

    Interesting stuff, throwing in the philosophers.  I’ll include it in the Carnival of All Substances on August 10, 2007.  Please stop by, have a drink (not) and say hello anytime.


  6. FitBuff - Total Mind and Body Fitness
    FitBuff - Total Mind and Body Fitness says:

    Hey Charles!

    Thanks for another great article. We’ve included it in our Ninth Edition of the Total Mind and Body Fitness Carnival.

    Please click on the following links to Digg and/or Stumble the post to bring even more readers to see your article:

    Digg This!

    Stumble This!

    If you have any questions at all, just let us know. And feel free to submit more great articles to our next carnival by using the submission link below:



Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *