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This Focused Performance Weblog started life as a "business management blog" containing links and commentary related primarily to organizational effectiveness with a "Theory of Constraints" perspective, but is in the process of evolving towards primary content on interactive and mobile marketing. Think of it as about Focusing marketing messages for enhanced Performance. If you are on an archive page, current postings are found here.

Thursday, January 02, 2003

Why Can't We All Just Get Along? -- Back in July, 2002, Thomas Stewart, in Business 2.0, wrote about conflict and cooperation in the workplace, keying off of an Emory University study of "the neural basis for social cooperation." It turns out that good things happen in the brain when we cooperate with one another.

Why then, in so many organizational settings, does conflict and self-interest seem to be the norm? Stewart opines...
"Managers complain that people frequently hoard knowledge, fail to share credit with others, and generally behave uncooperatively. Office politics -- a proxy for selfishness -- is the second most common reason people give for quitting a job. (Number one is tension with one's immediate boss.) It's human nature, we sigh.

"But it's not. All around us is evidence that people are naturally predisposed to get along. We live in cities, help little old ladies across the street, and sorta obey the speed limit. The profound urge to cooperate is why "good cop/bad cop" works, why you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and why it was the sun, not the wind, that got the man to remove his coat. I don't buy Jean-Jacques Rousseau's argument that selfishness is all society's fault; society is manmade, and hermits don't share. Yet organizations are filled with behavior that is contrary to our very brain chemistry.
The fly in the organizational ointment is the too common view of a path to success based on the individual contributions of the components and individuals in tha organization. Local measures of success may, on the surface seem to be aligned with larger organizational goals, but too ofter, those local measures are found to be in conflict with one another.

Whether its the classic confrontations between project managers and resource managers, production and sales, or R&D and marketing, or simply the day-to-day dilemmas, doubts and difficulties associated with trying to work together, so many of them can be related to either failures of alignment (horizontally across local domains) or disconnects between responsibility and authority (vertically between superiors and subordinates). These situations lead to a chronic or habitual situation, where expectations are lowered whenever it faces difficult choices. Without an approach to truly dealing with conflict, the participants fall back on political approaches or compromises that provide sub-optimal results. When that's the case, sometimes one side prevails and sometimes the other does, and sometimes there are no real compromises involved, which leads to a never-ending oscillation or recurrence of the problems. In any event, this quickly devolves into lose-lose situations in which at least one side resents in the short term and both resent in the long term. The resentment festers, making future conflict situations all the more difficult to resolve.

Sometimes this leads to a breakdown of communication, where even if thoroughly justified, people suppress their concerns and reservations about proposals put forth by others. Or if they do come forward, the concerns might be swept aside as the questioned proposal's originator sees the expression of concern as an attack on his or her idea.

Stewart quotes some suggestions from the Emory study on ways to attack the situation; the latter two of which are directly related to my thoughts about conflict and communication:
1) Be human....
2) Stop teaching fear and greed....
3) Cultivate a long-term view...
Our organizations are made up of people who have to interact with each other. As much as we try to align the goals of the organization with the goals of its participants, sometimes the "human factor" becomes the toughest obstacle to achieving effective teamwork. Sometimes the conflict involved in balancing relationships and teamwork with indivduals' need to contribute makes it difficult.

This conflict between our interests and the interests of others in the organization must be addressed if all parties are to "be successful" as a group.

If, however, the team can become proficient in and have success with an approach that helps them deal with conflict through clarification of win-win possibilities, that success alone will help to strengthen the various relationships. Nothing succeeds like success. Clarity of communication, combined with open dialogue about wants, needs, and concerns goes a long way to "unteaching" the fear and greed that our organizational measurement systems too often put us. But beyond the tools and techniques that can help teams and individuals "self-facilitate" their conflicts and conumdrums, there is another source of solution that addresses a structural version of Stewart's/Emory's "long-term view."

The idea of a "long-term view" versus short-term is directly parallel to the idea of a holistic "whole-system view" versus one of local optimization. One of the responsibilities of management is to develop a strategy of alignment that can minimize the pressures for conflict and clarify what is needed from each local component to assure whole-system success. The Theory of Constraints is an effective way of addressing this goal. The concentration of attention on how various components support the ability of the organization to get the most out of its identified constraints can provide a common view of performance. It might be surprising how such an understanding of the system, its goals, and its constraints, (consistently walked and talked) can go a long way to minimize the need for uncomfortable politics and conflict, allowing "us all to get along."

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