What should you do when policies aren’t being followed, customers are upset, and everything starts to fall apart?
These are all symptoms of Frankenstein Management Syndrome: A condition where harmful outcomes occur because leaders are disconnected from the needs of their employees, customers, and community.
Let’s explore what causes this scary condition and how to avoid it.
Who is Frankenstein?
In popular culture, the “Frankenstein” story is thought to be about a creature who was cobbled together and unleashed terror on humanity. But the truth is much different.
Written by English author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley when she was just 20 years old, this novel is actually a complex allegory based on her own life. A series of miscarriages and the birth of a baby prematurely resulted in Mary’s profound appreciation for loss, grief, and guilt. She started writing the story at age 18 and called it “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.” Due to societal restrictions, she published it anonymously in January 1818, then added her name when she released a revised version in 1831.
The story is about Dr. Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist who attempts an ambitious experiment to create a sapient creature. Many people incorrectly refer to the monster itself as “Frankenstein,” but actually it is actually the monster designed by Dr. Frankenstein.
The main themes include:
- Frankenstein’s singular focus is on creating, not on the consequences of his actions.
- He attempted to go beyond the limits of science, and this pursuit of knowledge resulted in irresponsible behavior.
Prejudice Based on Appearance
- When Dr. Frankenstein saw that the creature was not what he expected, he abandoned it.
- The creature showed generosity and compassion but was rejected, attacked, and rejected by society.
- Rather than taking care of his monster, Dr. Frankenstein abandoned him.
- Once he realized his mistakes, Dr. Frankenstein recused himself in the Arctic Circle.
- The Monster attempts to connect with him and to be given a monster companion so it wouldn’t be lonely.
- When it sees Dr. Frankenstein refuses to produce a mate, the monster foresees a lifetime of loneliness.
- In the end, Dr. Frankenstein dies alone in the Arctic. The creature mourns his death and vows to kill himself by floating away on an ice raft.
The novel concludes that we may seek to create perfection, but doing so will ultimately lead to our ruin.
The same problems that plagued the monster of Frankenstein can also happen in a business.
Allowing employees to have unlimited freedom sounds great… until it results in low quality and an increase in staff turnover.
When we feel compelled to give a customer everything they demand, it seems like a good idea… until they complain when you don’t solve their problem.
It may sound better to establish fewer boundaries and rules, but eventually… a lack of structure will make you more liable in court cases with a lack of documentation, missing Policies and Procedures, or inadequate training.
Even though it seems like a good idea to expect perfect outcomes of your processes, people, and profit, these can inadvertently result in a “monster you can’t control.”
This is dangerous because no matter how qualified your staff may be, and no matter how committed, the ultimate responsibility falls on the shoulders of the owner. Staff cannot—and should not—be expected to accept the burden of ensuing that everything runs smoothly. Unfortunately, business owners tend to put a lot of pressure on their staff to fix problems without giving them the resources and power to make it happen. This can leave employees feeling powerless to make decisions that will truly benefit the company, because they don’t have authority but are expected to achieve amazing results.
Whether an owner puts extreme pressure on employees to perform, or acquiesces the authority to make strategic decisions, both will result in a company that takes on a life of its own.
As an example, I worked in a company where there was no official office manager. The owners decided to tacitly allow one particular employee to have more responsibilities than everyone else. She had a strong personality and had been there for years, so the owners allowed her to be in charge of a few small responsibilities.
Over time, this employee turned into a tyrant. She made new rules that benefited her and penalized others. She took longer lunch breaks, left early on Fridays, and penalized staff who she disliked. Even though her productivity was high, the internal culture started to sour. When several employees complained to the owners, they were told the matter would be dealt with. Yet this woman’s behavior continued.
Who was at fault?
The “tyrant” had been allowed to take advantage of her situation by the owners. Her behavior was inappropriate, but the owners didn’t defend the rest of their staff. Instead of clarifying her role and setting boundaries (with possible disciplinary action), they simply ignored this situation. The lack of clarity made the work environment quite toxic, and it led to several resignations.
Taking on a Life of Its Own
Ultimately, we can’t blame the employee for this situation as much as the owners. Leaders are expected to take full responsibility for a situation that spins out of control, but this requires self-awareness of bias.
And that is exactly what happens with Frankenstein Management Syndrome: the company begins fragmenting because its leaders refuse to acknowledge problems until it’s too late.
In a Frankenstein business,
- Leaders lose control of their creation.
- The business does things its leaders don’t want it to do.
- Leaders prefer their own beliefs and aren’t open to hearing anything contradictory.
- Leaders are disconnected from the needs of employees, customers, and the community.
- Employees’ opinions and experiences are not considered in strategic discussions.
- There are no clear boundaries of what is and is not appropriate.
- Communication breaks down.
- The environment feels toxic to capable staff, and they decide to quit.
- Leaders aren’t willing to hear the severity and urgency of risks.
- Core values may flip-flop depending on the situation.
- The company’s actions scare potential customers away.
Refusing to hear new ideas, denying that problems are happening, and not inviting employees at all levels of your organization to participate in discussions about the future of the organization—these are all examples of how a company starts to fall apart.
Strategic imbalance occurs when a company’s leaders are not able to (or don’t want to) grow the company in a balanced way. By focusing only on some aspects of the company and ignoring others, this results in growth that is stagnant, chaotic, disconnected, or broken.
When this disconnect happens to a business owner, it can create a ripple effect on everyone around them. We can see the impact of disconnected leadership in the Strategic Growth Sphere. Of the 5 outcomes that happen with growth, Disconnect occurs when there is an insufficient focus on People and poor communication skills.
Fixing Frankenstein Management
Eventually, a business that runs this way will fail. How can you get control back?
Step 1: Be Awareness of Your Bias
The first step is to recognize where you may have a tendency to see the situation imperfectly.
We all have blind spots: areas that we aren’t aware could be causing harm to ourselves or others. What complaints, accusations, or concerns have current and past employees, customers, and others shared? Even the most hurtful comment has a kernel of truth. Listening to feedback (even from someone with a “disagreeable personality type”) can be incredibly valuable.
It is easy to perceive something as totally normal even if it causes harm.
When evaluating leadership blind spots, it’s important to focus on facts: what is said and possible root causes.
Step 2: Welcome Feedback
The next part of reversing an out-of-control business is to listen to staff at all levels—especially those in Foundational Staff roles.
There’s a strong correlation between the degree of disconnect from a leader (one who is unaware, unwilling, or simply unable to perceive that things are going wrong), and the damage it can cause to stakeholders in their company: customers, staff, investors, and the community.
Yet if we ignore the effects, downplay them, or pass blame (“It really wasn’t my fault; the employees made too many mistakes”), it can make things worse. A leader who attempts to create a flawless artificial environment and expects amazing results is doing exactly what Dr. Frankenstein did when he attempted to design his monster.
Step 3: Re-Balance Yin and Yang
An excess of Yang causes us to push and be aggressive. This management tactic can work, but it could also backfire by causing employees to withhold important information and constructive feedback. If your company’s culture has become negative and dismissive, communication can suffer.
Consider finding a balance in your management style that stays away from the aggressive of an aggressive Yang and the passivity of extreme Yin.
Read more: Yin and Yang Approaches to Management
Step 4: Become an Employee For a Day
If you are committed to finding out the source of root problems in your business, consider spending a full day in the job role of one of your staff members.
This experience will allow you to see your employees’ and customers’ experience through their eyes. I explain how to do this in What Happened When I Became an “Employee For a Day”
With some humility and an open attitude toward uncomfortable conversations, your business can become more successful and withstand the test of time.
Interested in hearing how you can reverse a toxic workplace? Find out more here.
Grace LaConte is a business consultant, writer, workplace equity strategist, and the founder of LaConte Consulting. Her risk management tools are used around the globe, and she has successfully reversed toxic work environments for clients in the healthcare and non-profit fields. Grace specializes in lactation law compliance & policy development, reducing staff turnover after maternity leave, and creating a participatory work culture.