Knowing where the bodies are buried: The Psychology of Institutional Memory

Much is made about the workplace benefits of experienced and long-term employees. In particular, it is assumed that with such employees the organization develops a memory data-bank that becomes institutional and is part of the overall success of a company. Thusly, it is referred to as Institutional Memory. It is this supposed collective set of experiences, lessons learned and best practices that a person or a group of people in the workplace have accumulated over time that works to the benefit of all.  That is the politically correct and hopeful definition of institutional memory.  Another more metaphorically accurate way of defining institutional memory: it entails knowing where the bodies are buried.

Last year, in the midst of heated NBA negotiations, Commissioner David Stern was feeling utterly exasperated with the process.  As he was trying to position himself in the negotiations, in a public diatribe he went on and on noting his impressive credentials and all that he has done for the sport when he uttered the phrase “I know where the bodies are.”   I guess at the end of the day, despite all of one’s impressive credentials what may matter most to some is the accumulated institutional memory from which one can position oneself.  How many employees have wanted to scream at an all staff meeting or at an annual review “I know where the bodies are.”

Let us take a step back. institutional memory can be helpful to an organization if the information is shared and if it is actually useful information. Let’s not confuse institutional memory with gossip.  Although, to be honest institutional gossip can be helpful if couched in how to avoid difficult situations or how to do things better.  We all know that those that “those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it” and that one “shouldn’t reinvent the wheel”.  Institutional memory is meant to keep the wheel turning and keep institutions from making the same costly mistake again.  There are two types of institutional memory: people and documentation.  And, these are intertwined.  You need people to document their experiences and put into protocols past lessons learned.  Documentation will ensure that information keeps moving forward and that it is not contained within the psyche of one person.  There is one problem with documentation and protocols: sometimes it seems like people just don’t read anymore.  Or at least, they don’t read anything that is more than 140 characters or that lacks photos.  Maybe if you throw in some photos of cats yawning or dogs using a human toilet, people will open a protocol manual.  However, I cannot promise you that the staff will actually read it.  Anyway, I am, in the grand scheme of things, a cheerleader for institutional memory when it actually benefits an agency.

But in essence, as a manager, I have noted there are three institutional memory minefields try to avoid:

  1. The “burnouts” are those individuals that stay past their prime due to numerous factors including the agency holding on to them for their supposed past experiences;
  2. The “vaults” are those individuals that actually have tons of knowledge and past experiences but they do not share or pay it forward; and
  3. The “snakes” are those individuals that use their knowledge of “where the bodies are buried” to get away with murder, per se.

Let’s start with the burnouts.  In some instances, employers actually value their institutional memory and feel that such an employee would be hard to replace.  Consequently, even though those employees may be showing signs of burnout they are encouraged to stay on or at least the employer makes no attempt to move them along.  Unfortunately, the burnout can manifest itself in outbursts, tardiness and lack of follow-through. The burnouts may tend to feel that despite having that institutional memory to rely on, things are changing too rapidly and thus they are not valued. Institutional memory, embedded within those that are burnt out, can lead to some employees becoming entrenched in how they function and carry out their tasks. Many may feel “this is the way it has always been done and that is the way going forward.”  These types of employees can at times be a barrier to workplace innovation and rebranding.  So, as a manager, you will have to weigh institutional memory against innovation.

Now, let’s take on those vaults!   These are the individuals that have much knowledge.  They even flaunt that knowledge. They entice you with that knowledge and then they pull the rug out from under you.  Oftentimes, these vaults act as if their knowledge is under patent.  They will even treat others with disdain for their lack of agency history.  They may act friendly at first but they often speak in jargon and use personal names and acronyms that would befuddle anyone. The vaults are oftentimes individuals who have long since forgotten what it is like to be the new person both in the agency and in the field overall. Consequently, they are often cavalier with your time while protective of theirs.  A common answer they may give to a question could be “well, it’s on the website look it up and let me know if you have questions.”  These individuals do have tons of knowledge and agency history and can be highly valued but they must be trained and coached on how to share their knowledge with others. As such, they do require additional human resources investment.

Lastly, you have those employees who outright use their so-called institutional memory to remind the employer that things could get rough if things don’t go their way.  At times, it is implicitly understood and at other times the employee may actually state it out loud as did Commissioner David Stern last year.  These are the type of employees you would be wise to assess immediately upon hire and before bringing them into any inner circle (both personal and business).  This concern is of particular importance when you are considering new senior management positions. The question you always have to ask yourself is: who is trustworthy and what do others really need to know? Basically, can you bury your own bodies instead of having someone else do so?

In essence, what should be helpful to the agency, (the shared knowledge of best practices and lessons learned) can become detrimental to the everyday functioning of a workplace.  Oftentimes, institutional memory is regarded as the holy-grail and employees may thusly be given a free pass of sorts.  They may be allowed to underperform without much recourse or consequence. Now, some may wonder what company would ever do that?  Well, non-profits and big bureaucracies for starters.  Don’t get me wrong. There are ways to maintain good employees that possess that institutional knowledge but one also has to know when to say when.  The “saying when” has to be worked out with some finesse so that all involved have a win-win situation and there are no bitter feelings that can come back to bite you.  Ahem…

At the end of its seven year run, the TV show West Wing had an episode called “Institutional Memory”.  It takes place two weeks before the Santos’ inauguration and the characters of CJ and the rest of the Bartlett administration consider what they will do next.  President-elect Santos offers CJ a position with his administration. He tells her:

“Institutional memory is an invaluable commodity…. We don’t just want you, we need you… Give me two years, C.J. Just until we get things settled.  You can be Special Counselor to the President.”

Interestingly, CJ was one of those characters that not only knew where the bodies were buried but she also helped bury some.  At the end of the episode she realizes that she could no longer stay on no matter how enticing the offer was from the President-elect.  She had seen and done too much and staying on would not make her happy. Nor would she be productive. As actor Richard Schiff (the character of Toby on West Wing) noted in terms of staying on a job past a certain point:

“It’s very seductive, but there comes a time when you want to move on.”
Indeed, very wise words.

2 replies »

  1. This was a helpful post. I’m in CJ’s position in a way and wondering if it would be better if I didn’t know where all the bodies are buried. Your thoughts on this are helpful for me to gather my own. Thanks!


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