Cough it UpTM How to Rid Yourself of Corporate Hairballs

Fri, Mar 19, 2010

When I began my research into seemingly unsolvable corporate messes, I used the metaphor of a cat hairball to conduct my inquiry. Some people loved the metaphor. Others had negative visceral reactions.  Hairballs subsequently became tangles, although much of my work is inspired by my research results on corporate hairballs. I had a lot of fun comparing a cat hairball to a corporate hairball. What follows is just a taste.

I am not a cat owner, so I relied on a number of friends to help me understand how cats get hairballs and how to prevent them.  I learned that having hairballs is part and parcel of being a cat. Likewise, corporate hairballs are part and parcel of organizational life. I defined a corporate hairball as a significant business challenge that is a source of pain, crosses organizational boundaries, and involves diverse stakeholders. It has no obvious solutions and has challenging interpersonal or political dynamics. One of its defining features is the complexity of the numerous overlapping relationships.

Cats manage their hairballs by self-grooming. Hairballs become an issue for cats when dense balls of hair get caught in their system (this is the really yucky part!). Corporate hairballs become an issue for an organization when leaders don’t address tough, “hairy” complex issues and they lay dormant in the belly of the organization.  Cats don’t function well when they have a hairball lodged in their belly. Likewise, organizations with a hairball lodged inside their system experience a sluggish workforce, low morale, and a slowdown in productivity.

How do cats get rid of hairballs? Squeamish alert—this is really yucky. Cats cough up or vomit hairballs. I found that a slang word for the word “cough” is to “cough up” or disclose! Organizations can begin to rid themselves of corporate hairballs when individuals bring them up forcefully and/or often, or through the act of disclosure within organizational conversations. It is often an internal or external organization development person who is in a position to recognize corporate hairballs and help get them on the table. Before an organization resolves a corporate hairball, it is preceded by a lot of noise in the system. It may take several attempts before the hairball issue is resolved. Getting rid of a hairball affects the entire organizational system and may also “shock” the organization’s system.

How do you encourage your organization to cough it upTM? My guess was, and research proved, that organizations naturally get rid of hairballs by having a culture and leadership that surfaces, legitimizes and resolves tough issues. An organization’s values guide its behaviors. If the there is a participatory leadership process, where input of all kinds is eagerly solicited, it is more likely that the organization will manage its hairballs.

For help with really tough leadership and organizational tangles, even corporate hairballs, contact me at

Marcia Ruben Ph.D, PCC, CMC

Marcia Ruben Ph.D, PCC, CMC

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