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The Prison Walls For The Lower Group

(Part 4 of the series on intergroup dynamics.)

The dominant force that helped set the tone for the Lower group of nine at Montville was their perceived need to be unified against outside threats/forces.  “United we stand, divided we fall” was their mantra, or borderline obsession.  No sooner had these nine people showed up at Montville, they were immediately thrown into a quick series of situations where they felt “rejected, excluded, left out, and helpless.”  It was little wonder that the first item on the agenda for their group was to form a core principle of unity, at the expense of any expression of individualism.  This tension between putting the group ahead of everything else and one’s inevitable need to attend to one’s own wishes was the central struggle for the Lower for the longest time.

As the group cohesion increased, the individual strength decreased, which made the individual members rely/depend on the group even more, and in turn further diminished the individual resources.  When a group’s essence is about unity, and is brought about by sheer reactionary responses to outside threats, then external forces become a must-have condition for this group’s life.  The paradox here is that “such a group feeds off the very conditions it fears the most.”  Even in the absence of an external threat, that absence becomes a threat as well because it would choke off the group’s oxygen for unity.  Hopeless, isn’t?

The Case of Social Comparison            Outsiders were always viewed with suspicion, sometimes justified as when the top group did have a “divide and conquer” strategy aiming at the Lower.  But other times, such as when both top and middle truly ignored the Lower, the suspicion couldn’t be lessened, since the Lower lacked the means with which to make such a distinction.  This behavior, manifested in individuals, would be considered paranoia.  In the case of the Lower, their paranoid behavior was first brought on by the system forces, and should have been viewed as an “expression of the system.”  In other words, putting all the blames on an individual group wouldn’t help the overall system to deal with its ills.  On the other hand, the Lower’s putting all this energy into fending off “outside” forces allowed the group to deny ownership of their own internal disunity, and projected such responsibilities onto others.  In fact, it was their insistence on group unity that choked off their individual expressions and made and enhanced the internal group tensions.  But how do we strike a balance between holding both the system and the individual (groups) accountable for the same dynamics?

Like the top group, the Lower group also used information deprivation, or secrecy, as a major strategy.  However, their focus was on hiding their internal disunity from others.  So, whenever and whatever the middle group, at the top’s bidding, proposed for the Lower to do, the Lower would automatically reject it, without any explanation.  What’s more, the Lower couldn’t offer any explanations since discussion might lead to disagreement, which was erroneously viewed as disunity.  Essentially, their rejections were all in the form of reactionary manifestations, not proactive for future development.  However, the middle group didn’t know that and always assumed that the Lower actually was hatching up some counter measures.  This is but one example of how a group can draw boundary around itself, or imprison itself.

The Case of De-individuation            By now, you have a strong sense that all individual concerns for the Lower were subsumed under the group unity.  If any individual issues surfaced, the reaction was, “OK so long as the individual first discussed it with the total group and they all agreed to it.”  The problem of such a strong unity is that resistance becomes inevitable.  But instead of seeing such resistance as the “expression of group tension,” the usual interpretation is “this person is recalcitrant or a trouble-maker.”  Remember, the individuals are embedded in the group which is embedded in the whole system; this embeddedness is a notion that may be more troublesome to embrace in this country where individualism is borderline idolized than in most other countries.  Unfortunately, the more powerful entities always have more say.  And so, in such a convoluted scenario, the side that demonstrates resistance will be labeled as “trouble-makers” by the more powerful side that proclaims unity.  This begins the cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy because those “trouble-makers” definitely will resist, which then justifies the initial labeling.

But there is a solution!  By either ignoring or affirming the label (rather than trying to negate the label), the resisters free themselves from the double bind.  When the Lower group kept resisting the top’s demands, they were always going to be the “belligerent, violent, incompetent” ones, thus trapping themselves in perpetual loops.  On the other hand, when the Lower had had enough, and simply ignored what the Top thought of them, they were able to walk away and start thinking for themselves, and came up with the real strategy of “guerilla-entrepreneur” activities that demonstrated that they were competent to act on their own.  Then, the labels became irrelevant.  This reminds me of my favorite Karate move, parrying.  It is a deflecting technique that channels away the opponent’s strike, without inflicting damage to either party, while gaining a moment for repositioning.

The Case of Internal Dissention & Internalized Oppression            The Lower group put a premium on their unity.  But as group members get closer to each other (approaching a truer manifestation of unity?), the probability for them to discover differences, disagreements, and outright conflicts was very high.  What to do?  They avoided these dissentions, glossed over them, or simply suppressed them with strong rules.  We can all surmise what would happen when suppression is prolonged and growing stronger.  There would be explosive situations, and the suppressed hostility would take the form of scapegoating the deviant.  Sometimes, the result can be therapeutic, and other times, the group will re-assert its group dominance in yet stronger fashion.  Until the next explosive situation occurs.

The Lower’s initial view of others’ forces to suppress them became internalized, and as this internalized suppression persisted, it became tantamount to “eating your own young.”  When that happened, the Lowers were essentially keeping themselves down and frustrating their own power.  By that point, the Top didn’t need do anything to acquire more power; they were granted more by virtue of the Lower’s self-frustrated power.  It’s like the teenagers’ rebellious behavior: They want their independence; however, before they are fully capable of being independent, they still require parents’ assistance, against which they need to rebel.  In such a catch-22 posturing, they essentially affirm their parents’ authority.  Similarly, the Lower group felt incompetent and powerless and they were sure that this status was brought about by the top group.  They demanded changes to be made, by the top group, but it was also their “duty” to reject anything offered by the top, genuine or not.  Basically, you can’t rely on others to liberate you!  “This paradox meant the lowers would never be liberated from the paralysis of their dependency while they looked to other groups to change what they didn’t like.” 

The Lower did start with “real” threats from other groups, certainly to the extent that others wanted to control them.  However, instead of giving themselves a chance to pull together their potential individual strengths, they traded that for forced group unity.  That became their thickest wall; all the follow-up actions, reactions, inaction, and whatnot stemmed from that initial strategy of “united we stand, divided we fall.”  In their perpetual resistance, they inadvertently gave and affirmed more power to the top group.  Resistance is “negating a negation.”  And as long as they were making others be responsible for their misery, and wanted the changes from the same others from whom they had to resist, they were eternally trapped.  Until they found a way to make the oppressive forces irrelevant.  That then lead to their discovery for themselves that they could be unified without denying their own internal fragmentation and differences.

Next week’s focus will be on the Middle.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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The Prison Walls For The Middle Group

(Part 5 of the series on intergroup dynamics.)

yet another april snow

My sympathies initially were with the Middle group; they really were squeezed between two polarizing forces.  The tension from such polarization was the basic reason for the Middle’s existence, yet managing this tension was what ultimately trapped them.  The middle group always tried to mediate between the top and the lower.  However, the paradox of “success” for the Middle group meant that a relatively peaceful co-existence between the top and the lower would render the Middle group irrelevant.  So, to assure a place in the system, the Middle needed to be only a little successful, while not totally failing. “Failure” would lead to rejection by the system, which was not the same as irrelevance.  To reach that delicate balance, the Middle chose to manipulate (not necessarily as an intended goal) the information flow such that neither the top nor the bottom would have a good grasp of understanding each other.  In other words, what the Middle tried to achieve was for the other two groups to become reliant on the Middle for information, both the amount and the veracity.  This was where they lost my sympathy!

The Case of Social Comparison            Understandably, the Middle needed to look at both the top and the bottom groups simultaneously for information, validation, reflection, etc.  Yet, those two mirrors/audiences were of such divergent nature that for the Middle to be in concert with one meant the opposite with the other.  It was often then that the Middle felt compelled to offer one side what they could do in words but to the other in actions.  So the Middle in Montville often appeared as if they were saying one thing but were doing the exact opposite.

For instance, the Middle proclaimed to the lower group that they were going to help the lower create a two-tier society.  This belied the obvious solution: take themselves out of the system!  Yet, the Middle still tried to convince the lower group of their sincerity, to which the retort was:  “The message we want you to carry to the Elites is that we don’t want you carrying our messages to the Elites.  Now it certainly wouldn’t make sense to ask you to convey that message to them, would it?”

Let me state the obvious anyway:  The social comparison for the Middle was particularly complicated.  In order to carry out their mediating task, they needed “factual” information from each group – at least, as factual as the top’s and the lower’s respective internal perspectives would offer.  But remember that both groups engaged in secrecy to maintain their group boundary; what would be their incentives to reveal to the Middle their internal issues?  For a while, the Middle was able to present a somewhat persuasive argument to the other groups that they could help ease the tension, and in order to do so, they needed information.

Note that we haven’t even begun to address the Middle’s own internal dynamics.  Not surprisingly, they too, found it extremely difficult to develop, understand, and manage their group dynamics.

The Case of Groupness             Logically speaking, to manage other groups and the tensions arising from the polarization, the Middle needed to be very strong, coherent, and secure in their own groupness.  Yet the nature of being in the middle meant that the members were constantly being pulled in different directions.  One strategy for the Middle to release some of these tensions was to “selectively over-communicate some facts while under-communicating others.”

Managing the information flow then became the power base for the Middle.  If they could argue to both groups that “information-sharing” was the key to depolarize the system, they might be able to access some of the secret information of the other groups.  However, once they did manage to access secret information, they had to use such information carefully.  If they revealed any secrets, their credibility disappeared, along with their power, which in turn meant that the other groups could talk to each other directly!  That’d be a horrible development for the Middle!!  This convolution became the essence of the Middle’s dynamic conservatism.

For the top and lower groups, their own internal reality was their sole focus.  Not so for the Middle; their identity rested in the intersection between the other two groups.  This was where they were caught/trapped.  Roughly the logic goes like this:  The top and lower groups could and usually did blame others for their own internal conflicts.  The Middle usually ended up absorbing/internalizing most of these conflicts.  What’s more, the Middle’s insistence on being at the center of communication processes for the system exacerbated these internalized conflicts.  When the Middle attempted to bring all forces together, conflicts, disagreements, fragmentations occurred; yet, their role was to mediate, so these conflicts must be the fault of the Middle.  And therefore, the solutions had to lie with them as well.  But if the Middle tried to pull themselves together by increasing their own group cohesion, it could only be done at the expense of furthering the polarization of the other two groups…and so forth.

The Case of Communication                        One of the most used, and abused, phrases in our workplaces is “we have a communication problem.”  It’s as if we somehow believe that once we start talking, transmitting information, things will get better.  But “communication problem” is only the gloss on much complicated issues.  For instance, at Montville, the Lower’s communication desire was “ Give us data that will confirm our worst suspicions.”  This group, being information deprived, would interpret even silence as “All hell was about to break loose.”  For the top group, information meant “Tell us about the vulnerable spots so we can manipulate them more effectively,” and “Tell us how great you all think we are.”  Communication to the Middle group was all about tools with which to depolarize the system while giving themselves polarizing power to sustain existence.

So, how did they convey “unity?”  A delightful word to which no one can object!  To the top and lower groups, unity talks were all about their own internal-group unity, which might strike us as a point of similarity “unifying” these two groups.  But digging deeper, we found “unity” assumed different meanings for these two groups:  protection and defense for the lower; more power for the top.  “Unity” took on yet another meaning for the Middle: It was all about the unity of the whole system, because only in a “unified,” or more accurately a juxtaposed, whole system that the Middle could exist.

Fundamentally, communication is the process by which different parties come to compare and contrast different realities so that some convergence of a “collective/common reality” can be established.  If individuals and/or groups have exactly the same reality, by definition, there is no need to “communicate!”

The Case of Common Reality            This is the clue to solving the Middle’s existential crisis.  The logic is similar to the notion:  “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  The Middle could conjure up a persuasive common reality for all to comprehend, but given the respective dynamic conservatism for each group, the probability for this proposal to succeed wouldn’t be very impressive.  A much more effective path would be for the Middle to bring the others into a dialogue about what reality could be structured/restructured to improve the system, and thereby better serving each group.  Unless and until all groups feel vested in the health of the overall system, taking the responsibilities of shaping and maintaining it, the paralysis continues. (Please note that paralysis doesn’t mean inaction; on the contrary, it’s often manifested in busy actions.) However, this was not how the Montville simulation concluded.

At the end of the Montville story, the lower group’s “guerilla-entrepreneur” strategy worked to totally upend the mini society.  The Middle, being at the crossroad of either joining the lower group to restructure the system or taking themselves out of the system altogether, decided on the former, and the newly evolved dynamics eventually made the top group members feel very left out!!  It didn’t help that the top group members literally walked in during the final stretch of the development, after their fancy dinner escapade.  Now, the top could have chosen to join and help remake the system, but they were being petulant, suspicious, and dispirited, so they didn’t participate in the birthing of the new society.

real birds with steel birds

A little grace and a little humility would really go a long way.  Next week, I’ll provide an overall summary.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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The Prison Walls For The Top Group

(This is the third piece in this series of intergroup dynamics.)

Have you ever contemplated what’s like to be in a dramatically different working condition? living situation? position of power (or lack of)?  To serve in a soup kitchen once or twice a year does not even begin to offer a sense of being homeless.  To fast once in a blue moon does not bring one an iota closer to the edge of perpetual hunger.  Imagine possessing enormous power?  What do you do with it?

The experiential learning society, Montville, that Kenwyn Smith portrays in his book, Groups in Conflict, offered the 22 women and men a chance to immerse themselves in a power status that was not their natural environment.  The participants ranged widely in their professional backgrounds (from corporate director to student), age (early twenties to sixty), religious beliefs, organizational affiliations (from university to military), etc.  Their economic backgrounds, though, were more similar, middle to upper middle class.  The setting was a in a tiny town in which three separate buildings were provided as living quarters, corresponding to the “elite/top,” “in/middle,” and “out/lower” group status, along with a common area in the form of a dining hall in the village inn.

Every learning setting in such simulations has its own design, with certain variations of structural features to correspond to the design theme.  However, the main purpose is always to construct and operate a society/system in which three tiers of power are to be maintained.  Participants knew in advance that they were going to be randomly assigned to one of these groups, not unlike the “luck” of birth.  It was essential that the participants be informed that they were likely to experience great discomfort, both physical and emotional.  They were advised to withdraw from participation if they were in a truly “stressful” life situation.  Generally, and in Montville specifically, the top group members were the first to arrive on site where the four staff members would process their registration and give them a certain amount of information and instruction.  The simulation began with the registration, including handing over all luggage, keys, wallets, etc.  Staff members also participated in the simulation, associated with the Top group.  As the Top began their “plan” for this new society, middle group members began to arrive, knowing that they were the middle but unsure who amongst the top might have belonged to the middle group.  The last members to arrive were the lower and they “knew their place.”

The simulation lasted two full days – inevitably feeling like two weeks to all participants – followed immediately by a third day for debriefing.

I wish I could provide even a rough sketch of what and how the Montville simulation played out.  The sequences of events, actions, perceptions, interactions, reactions, debates, guesswork, suspicions, all need to be laid out for readers to grasp why each uttered sentence can be hardened into the next set of actions.  Smith provides a meticulous anthropological account, which comprises half of the book.  However, that’s not possible in my space here.  So, once again, I urge you to get a copy of this book for yourself.  Here, I will go straight to the debriefing of each group’s take on the Montville system.  Please trust me: I have seen similar simulations enough times to know that the patterns of the interactions and outcomes are fairly robust.  I also have worked in enough organizations to know that the analysis holds true.  Today I focus on the Top group.


When the Top group didn’t like the reflections given by the other groups, they would attribute the response as independent action on the others.  Such as, when the lower group walked away from the top’s command to redo a proposal, without much resistance, the top thought the lower group was going to do exactly what they were told.  In lower’s reality, they ignored the proposal and went on to their own recreation activities.  Further, when the Top didn’t like the feedback, they would force the other groups to provide only the information they wanted to hear/liked.  The middle group often played into this dynamic, and just as often provided only what the Top wanted, so that they could escape from yet another scolding or berating from the Top.  Finally, the Top would simply reject all opinions as irrelevant, and relied on themselves as the only viable audience.  During the final stretch of the simulation, the Top felt threatened by the lower’s psychological warfare:  the lower occupied the top’s dinner places and ate the better quality food (meant for the top); took/stole the Top’s belongings; lingered around outside the Top’s domicile; deflated tires of one of the two cars (only the Top got to keep two vehicles).  Instead of examining the sequence of events and their own contribution to the state of affairs, the Top group simply took the community money – they were supposed to be the guardian – and drove into the neighboring village for some fancy dinners.

The social comparison process for the Top group was to extract only the information that would correspond to what the Top wanted to perceive.

Decision-making, especially strategic decision-making, is all about information and power play.  In just about all organizations, the top level of management is in charge of making strategic decisions, an onerous task.  In order to make well-informed decisions, ideally, the top level needs to be knowledgeable about both internal and external environments.  In their collective mind, much of this information isn’t readily available to other groups.  To lessen their own burden, the top level has to delegate something to others to carry out.  Typically, the top would keep the decision-making responsibility, and leave the implementation aspect to others, usually the middles.  This looks reasonable enough, till we see how it played out at Montville.

When the Top delegated to the middle in Montville, it was generally done without giving the middle much authority with which to implement decisions.  As a result, the middle would come back with less-than-satisfactory outcomes, for which they received a verbal rebuke.  After a few rounds, the middle group learned to protect itself from the Top by withholding some information.  This information-filtration eventually lead to a powerful double bind.  The Top group, now deprived of information, nevertheless thought they were all-knowledgeable, and saw the other groups’ “incompetence” as the justification for further withholding authority from them.  This then almost guaranteed the incompetence of the less powerful and all the more justified (hardened) the berating the less powerful would receive.

Knowledge is power, as is information.  When the less powerful groups began to offer only partial information – the part that would protect the less powerful but please/appease the more powerful – from which the top made their strategic decisions, we can see where this would eventually lead to.  After a few rounds of reduced information going upward, say, from 60% to 30% and so forth, pretty soon, the Top would eventually only get trivial information with which to make important decisions.

Again, I urge you to think of your own work place, or social concerns for examples.

We are all familiar with the conundrum of “master and slave;” whoever has the most information is in real control.  Furthermore, what information to give and how it is received lie in the eyes of the beholder. How often do we feel a sense of frustration when the information we get back isn’t what we really want?  And have we believed that the other end must not “listen well” or be “lazy” in carrying out our request?   Over time, many organizations develop the ultimate symbol of power by creating “classified information,” or other forms of “need to know.”  Yet, often, from the declassified government information, we are mystified as to why these were secrets in the first place.  Secrecy is a powerful tool to create and sustain the subordinates’ need of dependency.

Here is another puzzle:  The actual act of collecting information is usually carried out by less powerful groups.  How would they know what relevant information to search for and collect if they don’t have access to the whole picture?  Conversely, given that the top level continuously receives only partial information, how would they construct a realistically whole picture from which to define the next batch of relevant information they need?

Related, this need of the top group to use “privileged” information that’s denied to others is a manifestation of ethnocentrism.  Technically, ethnocentrism means that the set of standards, parameters, or rationales on which a group defines itself is different from the set(s) used for gauging other groups.  The middle group, being closer to the Top group in interactions, was usually judged and treated more harshly than the lower group, which was generally regarded as the Top’s “possession” to do the Top’s bidding.  When groups interact, most exchanges are not concrete, clear, or totally honest.  Groups don’t deal with ambiguities well, so they often fill in the gaps with their own interpretations that would meet their own standards or needs.  Over time, the Top group’s “reality” became dramatically different from the other groups whose own realities were just as skewed.

The Top group in Montville saw themselves as both the designer and definer of their little society; therefore, all the others had to do was carry out their orders and all would be well.  This is a mechanistic view of the “parts” that make up the whole.  In treating the less powerful groups as “possessions,” the Top could afford to not take the less powerful groups’ emotions into account; their aberrant behaviors or emotional outbursts would be irrelevant in the Top’s decisions of operating this little society.  In our “reality,” similarly, the corporate bosses view the workers as part of the equation on balance sheet; the military policy makers see soldiers as part of the national arsenal, etc.

In the simulation, initially, the top group saw gaining power as the means to an end, but eventually, it was the end.  “And the means to that end became making others powerless – a logical fallacy.”  This is the fallacy of either-or framework.  The top’s dynamic conservatism is summed up by Smith in this manner:

[This] posture of being the ‘creator’ of reality lead not only to the Elite’s being out of touch with other realities around them.  It also laid the foundation for their particular form of dynamic conservatism, hence making them ultimately reactive prisoners of the realities they helped to create.

Have a productive week.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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NUMMI – A Giant’s Atrophy

The higher rank one occupies, the harder it is to change for better/climbing higher. When you become # 1 — by whatever measurement — what’s next? This query is useful for individuals as well as organizations, but in this space, my focus will be on organizations – big, powerful, lumbering organizations.

I didn’t learn about the NUMMI case till a few months ago (from “This American Life”), but immediately recognized several management lessons. NUMMI stands for New United Motor Manufacturing Incorporated; it was a joint venture (JV) between GM and Toyota, back in the early 80s. NUMMI opened in 1984 and closed in 2010. It was a success story as well as a sad failure story.whynot

Before NUMMI, the GM manufacturing plant at Fremont, California, was replete with problems, from negative attitudes to high percentages of rejected cars. Sex, drugs, alcohol, and gambling were prevalent daily activities, right on the site. The animosity between labor and management was so deep that assembly line workers’ way of fighting management was to sabotage the cars at the line, leaving parts or Coke bottles inside the doors or omitting a few screws, etc. Both sides dug in in their power struggles; it’s as if they were living in their own self-created prisons. The dynamics exactly maps to the topmiddlebottom that I had previously described in detail. Absenteeism was rampant. On any given day, one out of five workers just didn’t show up. Mondays were the worst; there were times management couldn’t start the line.

GM had been losing market share for quite some time by then, especially in the small car market, and Japanese cars had been invading GM’s territory with quality cars. So, while top management in GM could never admit that the Japanese were turning out better cars – after all, GM had been number one in the world market for so long – they recognized that they had to do something. Toyota wanted to make further inroads in the US market, as well, to test Toyota management systems with American workers, and GM thought it might as well find out what all the fuss was about Toyota cars. In their joint venture, Toyota promised that GM would know everything about how Toyota made their cars.

Since Fremont Plant was “the worst of the bad mediocre plants in GM,” GM finally did its housecleaning. In 1982, GM laid off most of the workers and closed the plant. Next year, though, GM was in the planning phase with Toyota to reopen the plant under the JV.

Of course, not everyone in the system behaved selfishly; there were always a few diamonds in the rough. In his college days, Bruce Lee was the running back from the University of Arkansas, and had been the former UAW (United Auto Workers) Fremont chief. GM retained Lee to select a new crew for the JV. It surprised GM top management that Lee insisted on hiring back the same group of people. His reasoning? “…because I believed that it was the system that made it bad, not the people.” In the end, 85% of the new JV staff came from the old hands.

valle 2In 1984, Toyota started bringing the “old” Fremont people to Japan for training, groups of 30 at a time. The first group of Americans who went to Japan was apprehensive: How were they going to be received? Their arrival at the airport was a big news item, and the Japanese workers welcomed the Americans with gifts and smiles. There was one immediate noticeable difference: On average, the Americans were nine years older than the Japanese. Their age difference might or might not account for productivity difference; however, their physical size definitely did. Americans, being bigger than their Japanese counterparts, took an extra second or two to get in and out of the car while working on it. This added up to about 10-15% less productivity. Still, American workers could overcome this disadvantage…if they knew how.

The key in the how was in the “teamwork.” Well, there is teamwork, and there is teamwork. At the old Fremont, the team was huge, and the bosses got to dictate. At the Toyota plant, the team was of five or six people, and they would help each other, trouble-shoot together, and even stop the assembly line to correct mistakes or glitches. And all these were alien concepts to the Americans.

“Under the Toyota system, everyone’s expected to be looking for ways to improve the production process all the time, to make the workers’ job easier and more efficient, to shave extra steps and extra seconds off each worker’s job. To spot defects in the cars and the causes of those defects. This is the Japanese concept of kaizen, continuous improvement. When a worker makes a suggestion that saves money, he gets a bonus of a few hundred dollars or so.” Given my critique of “continuous improvement,” I will get into this potential problem in following posts.

At the GM plants, the cardinal rule was: You NEVER stop the line. Bruce Lee said, “You saw a problem, you stopped that line, you were fired.” Problems piled up. Even without overt sabotage, mounting numbers of rejected cars would be parked in the special lot for repairs at later times.

A veteran GM manager explained the rationale: “Because the theory was, they’ll stop it all the time. They don’t want to work, you know? They want to sit and play cards or whatever. That was a free break for them if the line stopped, so you wouldn’t give them the ability to stop the line.” This is quintessential Deficit Thinking (link). The foundation of this particular strand of thinking is one of the “bad management theories” I critiqued in my very first article.

In a way, Ford started the quantity over quality production. However, when the car was such a novelty and people weren’t terribly familiar with operating this new toy, they were willing to deal with constantly tinkering with the machine. That was way back, no longer the prevailing attitude in the 80s.

So at the Toyota plant, the Americans had to turn what they used to know and how they used to work upside down. As one American eventually learned, “Fix it now so you don’t have to go through all this stuff. That’s when it dawned on me that we can do it. One bolt. One bolt changed my attitude.” This testimony came from someone who used to pack his thermos with vodka back at GM Fremont.

tall trees

The newly trained American workers brought back new and shiny principles to the old Fremont environment and began the 2+ decades of quality production for GM…till 2010. The saga continues in the next week’s space in which I will explain how the 85% of the former workers were rehired…certainly not without protests and struggles. Till then,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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If We Must Have Scandals And Dramas…

At least, let’s glean some lessons.

(This is the second time when I thought I had posted an entry sometime ago…I didn’t.  And I didn’t realize it till much later.  Even though today’s entry was written in response to news items, stale by now, the lessons still apply.)

I am struck, yet again, by the cosmic distance between the top management and the rest of the working world.  And as usual, a good portion of this distance is caused by the monstrous ego of the manager/leader.  But ego cannot flourish without the implicit or explicit consent of its audience.

The particular political news item involves the personae in General Petraeus’ story and the particular business news item involves the  exit of Microsoft “general” Sinofsky, chief for developing Windows products.  Mr. Sinofsky resigned only two weeks after the release of the much better reviewed new Windows software, Windows 8.

I really don’t give a toss about the private lives of any leaders, managers, generals, or others for that matter.  The argument that a person’s dubious judgment in aspects of private life reflects upon that person’s conduct of official duties is unproven at best.  However, there do seem to be particular aspects where the lack of judgment is manifested.  What I have taken away from the Petraeus soap opera are:  (1) Leaders, managers, generals, presidents, star athletes…they are just human beings with all the accompanying foibles.  (2)  Corruption is the twin of power.  (3)  Propped up “heroes” fall particularly badly.

The top managers/generals are usually surrounded by support staff that caters to their whims.  People in such an insulated environment, and without meaningfully interacting with lower-ranked people who carry out the actual work, are bound to provide or experience some aberrant outcomes.  As the insulation thickens, the ones who possess power are compelled to want more power…to bolster the insulation.  I delineated, in the earlier entry the functions of these “prison walls” in group dynamics and how they come about.  The walls themselves eventually become the object which one defends, and those outside the walls are to be defended against.

A prickly beauty!

A prickly beauty!

As soon as walls are erected – drawing the boundary — there are “who’s in” and “who’s out” tussles.  Inevitably, there are outsiders who would use any means, usually money, to “get in.”  So, we have the Kellys in the Tampa area who found ways to befriend General Petraeus, General Allen, and their entourages. Why a socialite would be given so much access to military documents is beyond most people’s comprehension.  Why would 4-star generals get involved in Ms. Kelly’s sister’s custody fight?  (Please Google this matter; it’s too sordid and convoluted for me to try to recap here.)  Such petty use of one’s powerful personal connections for personal gain isn’t news.  We’ve all encountered pretentious upstarts, albeit on a much smaller and less consequential scale, in everyday organizations.  There are those mediocre students, employees, and even volunteers who manage to gain access to top level decision-makers, and these minions become drunk with special privileges.

This is part of the reason why a “small” matter of infidelity in the downfall of General Petraeus can so quickly reveal some ugly inner workings of the top levels of military power.  And throughout the unfolding scenario, no one is paying sufficient attention to the impact on the fighting troops on the ground.  Talk about cosmic distance!

The moral for managers and leaders is:  Make sure there are multiple and varied channels by which one interacts with and learns from people in the lower ranks.  I cannot stress this principle enough, and so I will repeat this mantra whenever possible.

By the way, one of the proposals for “correcting” some of the problems uncovered within the top military echelon is…Ethics Training! Really?!  If these adults still need to learn the meaning of a marriage vow, to not waste time on frivolity, to not think themselves infallible (how do you train that?!)…etc., then, how in the world did they reach this high level?  And for heaven’s sake, how does the chief spook fail to understand he can’t use unsecured internet connections for sensitive messages?!  Seriously, people.  Ethics?  Enron’s ethics statement was well written; how did that work out for them?  A year’s worth of coaching on humility is far more pertinent!  This holds true for civilian managers as well.

We use many military metaphors to describe everyday organizations, such as, “strategy,” “subordinate,” “commands from executives,” etc.  Not surprisingly, we also see many organizations’ executives act as if they are generals.  They are impatient with processes needed to achieve results; they don’t really desire challenges from “subordinates;” they surround themselves with an “inner circle” of operatives as gatekeepers.  Here is a paradoxical aspect of ego:  If I regard my ideas to be superior to others, why would I need layers of protection?

The story associated with the  departure of Microsoft’s Sinofsky, shortly after Windows 8 was released, affirms the case of a maverick growing unchecked into that “asshole of a boss.”  Mr. Sinofsky is often compared with Steven Jobs; both could be caustic and prone to treat colleagues in a disdainful manner.  I’ve written about the balance between welcoming innovative thinkers and tempering egotistic showoffs. I will just pose a question for leaders or mangers who are compared to these oversize figures:  Would you be one ounce less effective if you were to observe basic civility?

Lastly, leaders need followers; heroes need worshipers.  Ours is a society obsessed with hero figures and the myth of rugged individualism.  Such attitudes are partly responsible for our collective tolerance for mavericks however uncivil and rude; we put them on pedestals.  Remember Lance Armstrong, the now-fallen 7-time champion of Tour de France?  We find out, oh horror, that these beings on the pedestal are humans after all!

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Cluessless Is Not Leadership, Nor Sensible!

While not wanting to misuse my soapbox on politics, politics sometimes offers and confirms valuable lessons, like the Petraeus case.  This week I thank Congress, for tying their salary to offering a 2013 budget plan!  The lesson?  The same as it was in the Petraeus case, it’s the quintessential clueless nature and the lack of humility associated with the top group of managers, decision-makers, or those who believe that they are leaders but whose followers are only from a narrow section of the community they profess to lead.  I hope readers who have waded through my lengthy discussion of intergroup dynamics of topmiddlebottom resonated with much of what I wrote.  All groups want to maintain and grow their power – in order to execute their ideas and plans.  But often, the groups with the most power, vis a via other groups, tend to allow “gaining more power” to become the end rather than the means.

How a person behaves, or how a group acts, can best be understood in the context of relationships.  Plainly, we experience and view the same person differently; there are always different nuanced perceptions, depending on the relationships.  This holds true for group and intergroup dynamics.  Further, the impact of group forces on individual members is quite often beyond our awareness and control.  So, while groups may respond and react differently depending on the other groups with which to interact, there are patterns of attitudes and behaviors that can serve as signposts.

One of the “typical” responses with which the top group reacts to criticism or protest is the essentially-empty gesture.  They may mean well; they often think that they are sincere in their attempts.  But, inevitably they come off as “clueless” in the eyes of the other groups of lower ranks in the power structure.  When the top group of people try very hard to ameliorate some problems within the organization, they always offer something that others could not care much about, such as a meaningless apology, forced resignation of someone (often seen as scapegoating) or giving back a token bonus, etc.


Camouflage (Photo credit: Nick Chill Photography)

Congress just offered withholding that which is a meaningless bonus — their salary — until there is a budget plan.  Why do I call this a meaningless bonus?  Their salary is already in the very top of the income distribution for American population; just about ALL of them are multimillionaires; their salary is a relative pittance that probably doesn’t even match the interest derived from their assets.  So, the collective of Congressional representatives do not truly understand how most Americans live and what they care about.  I have to ask:  Why don’t we have representatives that actually represent the population?  Politics aside, my point here is:  The Congressional representatives’ behavior is more about their internal fight for power posturing than what is really important for the big organization, our country.  This pattern is often repeated in the top management group’s behavior; they are more concerned about their power base, their directory, than the whole of the organization.

I might have mentioned this example before, but it’s worth repeating.  Years ago, I was involved in an “Executive Education” program, designed for middle-level managers; a typical class had 50-60 participants.  One module was a learning lab on system dynamics; we did the top-middle-bottom experiential exercise for these participants.  Several times I have observed and facilitated this exercise, in the “Ex Ed,” graduate level course, and undergraduate course.   Inevitably, the participants in the “top” group, people who were mid-level managers in their day jobs, found that some aspects of group dynamics were beyond their control, however intelligent the participants all were.  One time, the players belonging to the “top” group, in the “Ex Ed” program, decided to offer their shoes — some very nicely made with Italian leather — to the lower groups.  Granted that this was in a learning environment, but the point is the same:  The top level offers symbolic item that means little to everyone else.  At another learning exercise, a bottle of wine and a corkscrew were involved; the struggles between the groups were just as fierce…with the top offering meaningless concession.

In the post-exercise debriefing, the instructors always emphasize that the top group needs to listen to what the lower level of workers have to say.  After all, the lower rank of employees has much more direct experience than the top about the environment in which they work.  But listening requires a healthy dose of humility.

How do we teach humility, especially to adults?  Why has this been difficult for business schools curricula?  Personally, I have been wrestling with this question for some time, without clear ideas.  Would you please share with me and the readers how to achieve that goal?  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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