Archive | February 2011

Some Reflections on Conflicts

There are functions of conflicts that aren’t necessarily destructive.  This notion really jarred me when I was reading for my PhD courses.  And I am still not sure that I am terribly fond of this notion.  I accept that differences can serve us beneficially, as in diversity of thinking, logic, styles, and ideas.   And I can imagine that certain conflicts may bring about positive changes, as the case in the “parallel process” discussed in the last two entries clearly demonstrated.  What disturbs me about conflict is that there are people who seem to actually thrive on conflict, and thereby may deliberately manufacture it.  I guess the recent political unrest, both internationally and domestically, has made me think more about conflict.

Conflicts arise mainly from the clash of values, interests, or goals.  There is one important feature, though, that should be highlighted:  Differences do not automatically lead to conflicts, and even when some differences lead to hostile feelings, they are still not conflicts.  Inherent to conflict is action, interaction or transaction.  Some people can hold a negative view of others for quite some time, but as long as they don’t act on the feelings, on the surface, there wouldn’t be conflict.  (Of course, prolonged suppressed animosity isn’t healthy either.)  One particular function of conflict is inter-group dynamics:  conflicts between groups can actually strengthen groups’ awareness, and consciousness of separateness can thereby help a group establish its identity in the system.  Furthermore, when different groups face the same “enemy outgroup,” these different groups may temporarily put aside their differences in order to defeat the common enemy.

snow may be a nuisance to some, but it’s a lifeline in the southwest

I think the recent revolution in Egypt is the perfect example.  The opposition comprised several different groups — even though the Muslim Brotherhood might attract the most attention in the West, it wasn’t the leader – with very different philosophical leanings; they united during the 18 days of demonstration because they had one powerful enemy, Hosni Mubarak!  If Mr. Mubarak had not been that strong, and had not stayed in power for so long, the animosity might not have been as strong.  Obviously, there were other reasons for the success of the revolution, but from the perspective of group dynamics, this illustrated well the important functions of social conflict, for drawing group boundaries and the notion of “superordinate goal” of defeating a strong common enemy.  The real challenge for the opposition, as for any such coalition, is what to do and how to move forward once the superordinate goal is reached.  The different groups in Egypt now have to go back and learn to deal with their differences that never really went away.

I do try to stay clear of politics in this blog, but talking about Egypt’s recent drama feels neutral enough!  It also is a great example.

Let me now get back to the domain that’s closer to home, our daily organizational life.  In most organizations, there are constant differences with potential for outright conflicts between groups, between individuals, between management and others (I reject the crude distinction between management and labor), and occasionally within individuals. Sometimes, potential conflicts are built into the organizational structure, and some conflicts are inherent in the process of interaction, such as the examples shown in the last two “parallel process” entries.

Let me illustrate how an organization can actually build in potential conflicts.  Again, I’ll use an example from my favorite local scientific organization.  There is one division (MAT) that does nothing but monitor work done using a certain kind of material; there are about 100 plus staff in MAT, most of them without advanced degrees, and technical background isn’t required.  Only about a dozen PhD’s in this division serve as senior advisors.  In general, the staff fan out throughout the organization units whose work involve this kind of material.  The restrictions imposed by the organization are bizarre.  Most people who work with this material are scientists or technical specialists.  But all monitoring decisions and monitoring work reside with MAT, whose staff, remember, don’t necessarily possess technical backgrounds.  We already have a very clear group boundary in this illustration.

tens of miles of straight road can be lulling…yet, the nickname “gun barrel” does not induce sleepiness!

The working philosophy of MAT is that all aspects of work using these materials are known.  So, they write numbingly detailed rules to guide all the work in this area.  An intrinsic problem of relying only on rules is what happens when you need to work outside the experience base from which the rules were derived?  After all, isn’t a scientific institution supposed to push the boundaries of knowledge, sometimes by creating new experiences?

So , whenever a project using some of this material runs into some glitch, the MAT claims you need to stop everything until they figure out what the problem is and how to fix it. But some work is bound by a milestone schedule where a few hours work stoppage affects subsequent steps and causes setbacks in schedules by weeks.  And when milestones are not met, stakeholders get testy and the whole organization suffers in the long run. You would think that an organization that is obsessed with eliminating the consequences of glitches would devote more attention to not annoying its stakeholders.  Let’s not talk about why a scientific institution’s goal should be to never have a glitch; that’s another topic.

Basically, if problems in materials work can be fixed by exercising one of the existing rules, it is okay, but if a problem requires some expert’s (unwritten) knowledge, it’s not okay.  As I said, bizarre!  Adding more to this bizarre nature of operation is that the scientists who actually possess the expertise aren’t allowed to improve these rules.

Do I have any suggestions for solution?  Dealing with this problem in isolation will not do; only a system-wide approach will address this aspect effectively.  The sickness of this organization is too deep and the top management is too myopic.  I have to believe that solutions are possible, but I can’t write a treatise here.

candlelight can add to atmosphere but can also wreak havoc

Now about another potential conflict, using the same organization.

A scientist-manager had to address one program unit in his division.  This unit seemed stuck and needed more funding, and it could only be found outside the usual sources. Ted, not a well-liked fellow in the unit, seemed to this manager to be the strongest person to lead a drive for revitalization.  What could this manager do?  He felt he should encourage Ted for the greater good of the unit’s scientific endeavors.  Was this manager arrogant to think himself more insightful than the rest of the unit?  Should he not give priority to others’ opinions, for the sake of the unit?  This became conflict within a person, as well potential conflict between manager and his people.  Fast-forward a few years: While still an experiment in progress, Ted, secretly encouraged by the manager, is doing exactly what the manager hoped he’d do, bringing in money and building the stature of the program.  A friend once said, “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs!”  I’ll let you decide who’s making omelet here.  As for others’ opinion of Ted?  They have come to respect what he had done.

In this process-nature of potential conflict lie a number of conundrums.  Could the manager have been open about his intention?  Could he in all good conscience have been more manipulative, very much against his nature and very being? By keeping to his own counsel, the manager ran the risk of operating “secretly,” a principle against which I had written earlier (under entry title, “The Hogwarts School of Management:  Powers!”).  However, if it were a form of secrecy, it wasn’t to advance the manager’s own power; it was more like my description of Dumbledore of the Hogwarts School in Harry Potter series:  A good teacher needs to be manipulative at times.  One could argue that in this case, there was little disagreement or potential conflict in the unit’s overall mission, and so the manager’s action was in concert with the overall mission.  Part of my point here is that while in general, I do believe and advocate openness and honesty, there are times when unbounded honesty and openness would actually result in conflicts.  Many a manger would make decisions without wrestling with their internal conflicting feelings; they are “decisive!”  The ones who are more conscientious sometimes are viewed as weaker and wishy-washy.

one pound of butter in this 3-layer dessert

to eat, or not to eat…definitely an internal conflict

Let me just conclude with this thought:  Whenever conflict looms, a one-dimensional analysis would only lead to more conflicts.  May you have a relatively conflict-free week.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Parallel Process of Intergroup Dynamics: How men’s covert conflicts got expressed in overt conflicts between women – part II, intervention and outcomes

The principle of parallel process can be applied to intervention.   A small group of representatives chosen from the larger system can grapple with pertinent issues, unpack the layering of conflicts, understand their emotions and the sources, and imperatively, reflect back their lessons to the larger system.

more parallel lines

In this case, Smith and his colleagues created a “microcosm group” to identify issues, learn to make decisions, and take lessons back to the large group in order to move forward.  Microcosm group learning is different from any individual learning or subgroup learning; microcosm group members need to temporarily suspend their own interests, including any informal clique to which they belong, and only consider the larger unit as a whole.  Their learning and reflections, through the aid of the process consultants (in this case, Smith and colleagues) would mirror what the whole group would have to deal with.  So, the composition of the microcosm group is critical; it needs to be large enough to represent all levels of functions within the whole unit but small enough that it can function.  The group’s heterogeneity also must mirror the whole to achieve sustainable results.

Ordinarily, the larger unit would elect members for the microcosm group.  But given the degree of the dysfunction of the Design and Engineer Unit, the process of choosing alone could stall them in perpetuity.  So, the consultants decided to make a top-down decision on who to include.  The unit’s initial response was critical, for the consultants did not “fix” the situation; however, after explanation, members of the unit grudgingly went along, and while somewhat disgruntled about the consultants’ choice, most members seemed relief for not having to make decisions!  Bailey was one of the six members in the eventual microcosm group.

in this arrangement, our cats would do unspeakable things to the plants at the bottom.

Some of the principles of operating this microcosm group are worth noting here:

  1. There were two “vacant” chairs reserved for any members of the unit who were not officially in the microcosm group but could apply to sit in the scheduled meetings, based on “first come first serve.”  And these temporary members would operate as full members in the meetings.
  2. To ensure that this small group was fully representative of the whole, there wouldn’t be any secrecy and confidentiality.  All its decisions were public knowledge.
  3. For efficiency sake, any previously raised grievances would not be repeated.
  4. To break the mode of negativity, no one would make any negative comment about another person without first making that comment to the person’s face.

The very existence of these ground rules was the first major breakthrough since this unit was not accustomed to drawing boundaries.  Recall their inability to say “no” to work requests.  So, learning to say “no” seemed a good starting point.  Their first decision was to address the constant traffic using the unit’s space as a thoroughfare.  One day, the unit simply decided to lock the door, without telling anyone who’d be affected.  Needless to say, this resulted in such a flood of complaints that eventually higher-ups from other units within Building and Maintenance pressured Ertman, now the acting director for the unit, to unlock the door.

At the next session, the microcosm group understandably was upset, but at the same time, the first act of saying “no” energized them.  They began to appreciate the difference between working on the symbol and working on the concerns behind the symbol.  Their next “practice” came without design.

Johnson decided to take one of the vacant seats, without first applying for it; she just showed up.  So, the group had to decide what to do, and either way would require a “no.”  Rejecting Johnson’s joining this session seemed silly because it was a minor technical glitch and would further the rift between Johnson and Bailey, especially since Bailey was one of the microcosm group.  But allowing Johnson to join would nullify the group’s own newly established rules.  This quandary taught the group about the consequences of avoiding conflict, in that there are always those who would take advantage of “conflict avoiders.”

The group decided to ask Johnson to come back at another time after she had properly gone through channels.  Johnson wasn’t happy, and swore that she would never come back.  She did, but that’s later, and her presence eventually helped create the opportunity and space for her to work out the issue with Bailey.  In the meantime, the group learned to deal with other issues, such as how the “quieter” members’ voice usually got trumped.   One such quiet member, Carlton, found his voice and confronted Bailey on her often demanding and demeaning manner toward him.  Not surprisingly, Bailey was totally unaware of her manner toward Carlton.  But the rest of the group concurred with Carlton’s complaint, and bolstered by the support, Carlton began to assert himself and gain more equal status with Bailey.  As Carlton’s voice grew stronger, Bailey became more vulnerable, more understanding of others’ positions, and less strident.  When all members in a group (or family) are empowered, “their voices can be heard, thereby eliminating their need to act covertly.”

When Johnson eventually showed up (persuaded by others, and with some agreement from the group that they would accommodate her issues on her terms), the tension within the group was palpable, in part owing to her several months’ pregnancy.  At first, Bailey asserted that the problem was with Johnson only and they shouldn’t discuss it in the group.  But the consultants intervened and others in the group concurred that the conflict had been affecting them as well, at which Bailey was genuinely surprised.  But as Johnson and Bailey started talking, the consultants noticed that the men seemed to enjoy their conflict.  So, again, the consultants intervened, and suggested working with Johnson and Bailey privately, to which both agreed, to the apparent disappointment of the men.  During the private session, both women finally realized that they had been the scapegoats for the men’s difficult relationships and that they had been encouraged to carry and continue the fights.  They began to see how rumor, innuendo, and sabotage had been at play without their control, and they vowed to stop being part of the game, and to renew their friendship.  They would deal with facts only, and hold no secrets.  A new coalition of women in the unit was born that day and was evident even 18 months later.

However, as the women coalesced, some of the men had difficulty dealing with it, particularly the recovering alcoholic Walls since often he was the one instigating the conflict between the women.  As things improved all around, and his manufactured innuendos to further the conflict for the women were repeatedly ignored by the other staff, he started threatening to go back to drinking.  At this point, the consultants introduced the microcosm group to the concept of “emotional blackmail.”  Walls’ “blackmailing” was partly a reflection of the unit’s own behavior at not owning their less-than-stellar productivity.  So, in learning how to eventually taking a stand against Walls’ blackmailing, the unit also began to take responsibility for their own work productivity.

A final note on the unit’s progress:  Bailey organized a baby shower for Johnson.  Catucci was amazed at the jovial atmosphere at the party, especially since for a few years, the same group of people could barely stand each other’s presence at their annual holiday party.  Ertman took measures against Walls’ use of unit’s resources for his private enterprise.  A few months later, Walls resigned, with handsome windfalls from his sideline business, and never took up drinking.

intervention: putting cacti at the bottom; problem solved!

The method of using microcosm group can work only when what’s imported into the group gets exported back into the larger system.  A great group experience that doesn’t get transferred back to the whole would be pointless.

And finally, if Smith had taken Catucci’s call at face value and focused on only “fixing the women,” he might have limited his intervention to some therapeutic sessions for the women only, thereby improving some cosmetic measures of personnel performance or the reward system, but the organization would have continued to degenerate.

This is a complicated case, and the writing about group process can never be short- changed.  So, it’s been a long entry that was best split up into two parts, although short on pictures…I ran out of ideas this time!  Feedback, suggestions, please, I welcome them!!

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Parallel Process of Intergroup Dynamics: How men’s covert conflicts got expressed in overt conflicts between women – part I, the case

“Fix the women,” my professor friend, Ken Smith, was asked by the director of the Buildings and Maintenance Division of a state hospital.  The followup, diagnosis and intervention provided by Ken Smith and his colleagues formed the basis of a fascinating article, Fix the Women”:  An intervention into an organizational conflict based on parallel process thinking. In today’s space, I will focus on describing the situation, and will provide the intervention method and results next week.

The women thought to so need “fixing” were two of the five female employees in the 30-some staff of the Design and Engineering Unit, part of the Buildings and Maintenance Division which employed 600 people.  This particular unit seemed to have caused constant problems for the director Catucci who made the call.  When Smith responded to his “fix the women” with “we’d better talk,” Catucci said, “Ok, but let’s do it soon.  It’s getting really bad down there.”  (emphasis mine)

As Smith pointed out, in two short sentences, Catucci had provided several hints of what the “women’s problem” entailed:  sexism, latent hierarchy, control, and violence, as if “fix the women” was akin to fixing some alley cats.  Since Catucci had worked with Smith before, he had some clear expectations, i.e. organizational problems cannot be treated with quick triage but most likely need to be attended to with methodical care.  And the first step is to provide organizational diagnosis:  A fundamental lesson in working with organizational problems is never to assume that the problem identified by the contacting agent is the real issue.  Or, as Smith pointed out in the article about diagnosing and intervening in organizational conflicts:

  • Conflict often surfaces in a location quite remote from its place of origin.”
  • “Few or no identifiable signs of the conflict may exist where it began.”
  • “The path by which the conflict was transported from one place to another may be invisible.”
  • “The form of the conflict may change as it changes location.

So, immediately, Smith knew the “women’s problems” were likely rooted in conflicts elsewhere.  One of the principles in his method of diagnosis and intervention is to mirror as much as possible the dynamics of the studied organization in his team of consultants.  He thus invited two females (the co-authors of the article) to work with him on this problem.

all pics for today’s entry are about “parallel”

As they began systematically interviewing everyone in the Design and Engineering Unit, along with observation data, they watched for signs that the “women’s problems” were really about conflicts among the top three male authority figures, the Unit’s director, his associate director, and the chief engineer.  This is what Smith called “parallel process”:

When two or more systems – whether these consist of individuals, groups, or organizations – have significant relationships with one another, they tend to develop similar affects, cognition, and behaviors.”

Once the process begins, no one is immune to it, and it can move from one corner to another, or from one level to another, changing along the way.  For instance, two directors may be competing for resources, but decide to suppress their hostility and act “professionally” to collaborate.  However, they may each direct, explicitly or implicitly, their respective subordinates to fight for their own units.  So what may start as top-level struggles for resources become fighting for cost-transferring measures between groups at lower levels.

The specific dynamics in the Design and Engineering Unit was manifested in the  fighting between two women, one of whom, Bailey, was the only interior designer in the hospital and the other, Johnson, an aspiring interior designer, was currently doing draft work in architect’s office.  Bailey’s position allowed her to develop a network with others throughout the hospital while Johnson’s contacts were mainly within the unit.  These two used to be friends, working with each other for years.  However, as Johnson began taking courses in interior design, rumors began that she was out to get Bailey’s job.  And since each woman had her own network pulling for her, doing sabotage, spreading rumors, eventually downright deliberately humiliating each other, the hostility became intense as time went by.

view from the opposite

One incident was especially vicious.  Johnson developed some severe case of acne during a difficult period.  One day, she found an advertisement on facial cream in her in-box, with a note signed by Bailey, “with love, Gwen.”  While Johnson acknowledged the incident, Bailey, when asked, unequivocally denied her involvement.  The consultants saw no reason to doubt the women’s words.  So, someone else did this.

During Smith’s and his colleagues’ data collection (group meetings, interviews, and observations), they found that aside from the five women in the unit, the men always seemed to relish in re-hashing the stories even though they did admit that the clash contributed to their dissatisfaction at work.  The consultants wondered whether the two women’s conflict could have persisted, and produced such impact at work, without the collusion of others.  When pressed about what they had done to “cool down” the tension, the men indicated that the animosity was so strong it could not be tempered.  This raised a red flag for the consultants, and lead them to suspect that the men actually had an emotional investment in the women’s struggles.  In other words, the women’s conflict had served some function for the unit as whole; they were essentially the repository for the unit’s suppressed problems.

As the consultants dug deeper, they found:

  1. The Unit’s director, Lumsford, a born-again Christian, almost got fired when he was found distributing religious materials to the group, including two Jews.  Catucci argued to the hospital administrator (who initiated firing action against Lumsford) that due process was ignored and that Lumsford should be given another chance.  So, in essence, Lumsford was on probation.  However, as the consultants began their work, they learned that Lumsford was looking for another job and his resignation was only a matter of time.
  2. Lumsford’s associate director, Ertman, was an architect, rather than having an engineering background like Lumsford.  There is built-in tension between these particular professional groups, engineers and architects.  More importantly, Ertman was hired as the associate director when the director’s job was given to Lumsford; they were both candidates for the same job, and Ertman’s appointment was made without consulting Lumsford.
  3. While these two appeared professional without ever referring to their awkward history, the consultants pressed and found that at least Ertman occasionally did feel vindicated whenever Lumsford’s management style was criticized.
  4. In addition, the chief engineer, who would be a candidate for Lumsford’s position when he resigned, would not consent to report to Ertman; after all, he was only an architect.  (side-bar:  I alluded to this type of diversity issue as prominent in many organizations.)  So, the senior engineer reported directly to Lumsford, and in Lumsford’s absence, Ertman had no authority over the engineers.
  5. But in the face of Lumsford’s leaving, Catucci had already let it be known that the director’s position would never go to Ertman, which raised the friction between Ertman and rest of engineers.  In the end, Ertman reluctantly consented to take position on an acting basis until someone from outside would fill the job.
  6. On top of it all, the whole unit had a problem of saying “no” to requests for work from the hospital.  The foundation of this problem was in the nature of the anemic funding typical of state agencies.  The buildings were constructed with minimal costs and so the wear and tear were constant problems. How things got done and prioritized depended on the political connections of the people requesting work.  But of course, who had the more political power often rested in the eyes of beholder, and no consensus on such power ranking could be achieved.  As a result, many times, work didn’t get done on time, or at all. There were no formula or criteria by which to judge the scope of requested work and to set up priority.  This should have been the responsibilities of Lumsford, Ertmen and chief engineer, but given their difficult relationships, little wonder they couldn’t tackle this mess.
  7. It didn’t help when the unit’s physical layout reinforced the feeling that they were being “walked all over.”  The rest of the 600 people of the whole Building and Maintenance would use the unit as the thoroughfare to get to restrooms and the time clock that was located one floor below the unit.  While there are routes from outside leading to the basement, it is much easier to go through the unit, especially during bad weather.  It never occurred to the unit to request relocation of the time clock.
  8. And oh by the way, if this wasn’t bad enough, there was complication brought on by one employee, Chet Walls, a 55-year old recovering alcoholic who had always attributed his “success at staying on-the-wagon” to his fellow employees’ support.  The problem surfaced when Walls started his own business on the side, and began openly using office resources to conduct his business, including some staff time and effort (sometimes with a little payment).  The staff were afraid of confronting him or saying no to him because he would hold over them the threat of going back to drinking.

One of the consultants’ first finding:  Three cliques had formed, distinct yet covert, each taking a strong position about the “women’s problem.”   One supported Johnson, one Bailey, and the third one was for those who were determined to “stay out of the conflict.”  Yet, the third group spent so much energy in NOT taking sides that they were de facto participants in the conflict.  Just about everyone in the unit was in one of the three cliques, except those who were offsite doing construction, and felt more identified with their contractors as a result.

Especially interesting was the point that each of these three cliques had one of the three principle male authority figures as their members:  Lumsford was with the group siding with Johnson, Ertman with Bailey, and the chief engineer as the leader of the so-called “independent” group.  How each group handled the emotional stress is best summarized in the Smith, et al article:

The group including Lumsford and Johnson had adopted an attitude best described as ‘the goodness in us will ultimately triumph over the evil in you.’  These persons considered themselves warm, caring, and supportive of one another.  In contrast, the group including Ertman and Bailey acted as if they were on a moral crusade whose motto was ‘Fix things now!’  The group including the senior engineer acted as if all of the unit’s problems were Catucci’s fault, and that he alone was responsible for solving them”

What do you think the consultants should do for intervention?  Would it work or help by telling the unit staff all the above facts and observations, especially the cliques?  Would they have accepted this approach?  Like the difference between catching fish for someone and teaching that someone how to fish, so it is with solving organizational conflict; experiential learning is always the most effective.

I will illustrate the intervention technique in the next week’s entry.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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