Books: Cognitive therapy for sick companies

The author uses the mental health analogy to diagnose firms that fail employees. Does he have a cure? Keith Weed reports.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Former Unilever CEO Sir Michael Perry once said: 'Our top three priorities are first, innovation; second, innovation; and third, innovation. And if you still aren't sure, it's innovation.' More than ever, this theory should be applied to our working environment but, unfortunately, it rarely is.

We've all heard the statistics - we work longer and harder than ever, and more than 13 million days a year are lost in the UK to stress-related illnesses, costing the economy billions of pounds.

So it makes sense to ensure that our work environments are not people-drains, burning out disillusioned bright young things as jaded has-beens five or 10 years down the line. The argument is not just a moral one; you are unlikely to be successful as a business without a contented and motivated workforce. I believe that 'miserable people deliver miserable results'.

New thinking on this subject is always welcome and I approached Corporate Denial with optimism. Will Murray, BT's former head of marketing, confronts what he believes to be the most damaging business taboo in management today: many workplaces have become uninteresting and thus uninspiring and ineffective.

The central thesis is that most modern businesses fail to reach their potential because 'the culture governing the way many of them think and behave is inevitably limiting their long-term success'. This induces 'Corporate Stress', which, once institutionalised, leads to 'Corporate Denial'. According to Murray's research, about 75% of organisations lack focus or motivation, waste resources in chasing conflicting goals or try to do too many different things. Most damagingly, they fail to confront it.

But behaviour in organisations is changeable. New patterns can be learned by companies, and Murray recommends some helpful new approaches. He draws parallels with human mental health and with Stephen Covey's self-help guide, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Indeed, Murray's own conclusions and recommendations could be described as cognitive therapy for companies.

He identifies patterns of behaviour that successful organisations exhibit, which immunise them from the dangers of corporate denial. With a clear sense of purpose, an energising focus and the development of solid internal and external relationships disseminated through effective communications, primitive businesses can become advanced and successful.

With many organisations staffed by people largely uninspired by the daily grind or, worse still, embarrassed to admit publicly what they do, there is an issue that needs reconciling urgently. Commendable though Murray's efforts are to confront this threat, I was uninspired by his route to salvation.

The problem with his principles is that I've heard so many of them before. The corporate denial effect, as Murray rightly argues, can result in enormous losses in business productivity if left unchecked. But it's old hat masquerading as a new philosophy. So why is this book needed and why do so many companies fail their employees?

Businesses need to work hard to find the right people and to nurture them. Recruitment processes should focus on individual temperament and personality to select more for attitude than skills, and then training can be introduced to prepare individuals for a particular role. Put the right people in the right working environment and employees should flourish with each day spent in the office. With individual growth come sales and profit growth - as we say in our company: 'If you grow, we grow.'

Libraries of inspirational literature are available on this subject, and the most enlightened organisations already practise this philosophy.

So although it's sometimes worth getting an outside perspective, books that are part business philosophy and part self-help guide often fall short of the mark. It's up to the people running the business to make a conscious decision to develop the culture of the organisation, and people's energy and personal commitment will be more powerful than any book.

With Corporate Denial, I found myself asking why management consultancy is so often dressed up in jargon. Although I agree with much of what Murray has to say, Californian guru-speak does not help. Unfortunately, in this book, as with many other management guides, useful information is often lost in translation.

Keith Weed is chairman of Lever Faberge UK and president of the Marketing Society.

Corporate Denial; Will Murray; Capstone £14.99 MT price £12.99; To order, visit

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