Are Organisational Limiting Beliefs Holding You Back?
Updated: Nov 3
This post explores the notion that limiting beliefs are present in organisations, circulating unchecked, shaping culture and performance.
Listen carefully to conversations in your organisation and you might notice patterns, similar words and phrases used as justification to do, or more likely not do, something. They may be especially noticeable during transformation when a new idea is presented or a tricky decision looms. You might hear phrases like “That’s not how we do things”, “We always go slowly”, “We don’t have time for that”.
Replacing the word ‘We’ with ‘I’ in the above examples reveals what some coaches describe as limiting beliefs. These are entrenched assumptions or rules which are held to be true and unbreakable even in situations where they do not serve the holder well, to the extent that they may cause maladaptive behaviour.
Beliefs, and the values around which they cluster, are powerful and persuasive. They motivate contributors and customers, hence significant investments in brand and company culture. If we acknowledge their positive influence and value to organisational aspirations we should also acknowledge their ability to be detrimental, to undermine and disengage, to limit options and opportunity.
This is why I think leaders should pay attention not just to inspirational values and beliefs but to what is already out there and circulating, the narrative of the organisation (Klagge 2016), the memes that become mantras influencing attitudes and behaviour in undesirable directions.
Formative experiences, like joining and striving to find a place in a new organisation, form long lasting beliefs. I particularly notice this in new starters, who begin with beliefs influenced by brand, recruitment copy and effusive interviews, they bring refreshing optimism and cognitive diversity. Over time their language and stories converge and become remarkably similar, and I wonder if they will come to think like incumbents, slowly dissolving into the soup.
By way of example I see decisions being made one after another, predicated upon a single dubious, or at best no longer useful, belief. “We don’t pay enough” is common and leads to noticeable self imposed limitations - an assumption that hiring is only about money, reducing attention to all the other wonderful aspects of working there. At the extreme is an assumption that not paying enough means settling for under qualified or poor performers.
‘We can’t hire good people here’ was a phrase I heard in an enterprise with surprising frequency. Seemingly unchallenged, the company embarked on expensive offshoring initiatives, rather than exploration of where the judgement originated, its root causes, and consideration of options. Almost inevitably the things that appeared to prevent hiring here were replicated elsewhere, so now the problem was in two continents rather than one.
It is useful to recognise that, in contrast to personal values, organisational limiting beliefs manifest in the context of the organisation, like dressing for work in the morning, we put them on and act them out with little thought. In one to one coaching we work directly with the ‘owner’ of a belief, an organisational belief resides in multiple minds and spreads easily. The true owner isn’t even the organisation, they are a result of the interactions between individuals and the organisation and individuals. This notion leads to interesting ‘Ship of Theseus’ like puzzles, just how many people would need to change to change an organisational belief?
This area makes productive and insightful material for group and team coaching, one to one techniques can be readily adapted, such as the Iceberg visualisation (Satir 1991) and surfacing and disputing methods such as ABCDE (Ellis 1987). These bring the potential to consider limiting beliefs en-mass, rather than over multiple one to one sessions, presenting an opportunity to limit the replication of the belief. This supplements other work around organisational values, which tend to encourage contributors towards some chosen beliefs, rather than saying “What do you believe now and is it useful?” There are also tools, such as SenseMaker, specifically designed to collect and analyse stories from large groups.
There are things that can make a difference right away, simple spontaneous coaching questions also challenge circulating beliefs, and biases that amplify them. For the ‘We can’t hire good people here’ example we might steer the conversation towards what is wanted ‘We need to get better at hiring’ or be less absolute and acknowledge that the situation is both temporary and changeable, ‘It is challenging for us to hire here at the moment’.
I note limiting beliefs are often grounded in something that was once useful but has now passed its expiry date. Questions are particularly useful for highlighting beliefs grounded in organisational folklore. As Carl Sagan suggested “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, so consider constructively challenging questions like “When did that last happen?”, “How often does that actually happen?”, “How do we know that for sure?”. Another tangential approach is to draw attention to other possibilities and raise awareness, for example “When doesn’t that happen?”.
The similarities between individual and organisational beliefs are striking, and their effects on the organism they inhabit are similar. Beliefs appear to be intrinsically linked with success in single and group endeavours. Organisational, and group beliefs may be harder to spot, but once surfaced there are a wealth of coaching techniques to scrutinise, work with and determine if they are helpful. Hopefully they are not limiting where you are, but if you do spot one in the wild, be sure to let me know.
Ellis, A., & Dryden, W. (1987). The practice of rational emotive therapy. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.
Klagge, Jay. (2016). Storytelling and the Development of Organisational Culture. 10.13140/RG.2.1.5087.4968.
Satir, Virginia, et. al. (1991). The Satir Model: Family Therapy and Beyond, ISBN 0831400781, Science and Behavior Books.
Seligman MEP, Maier SF. Failure to escape traumatic shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 1967;74:1–9. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0024514.