by Don Rossmoore, Ph.D.
Some rather stiff winds of change have swept through corporations in the last few years, toppling hierarchies, whisking away long-held notions of organizational structure, and carting off those who would be kings. The corporate landscape is no longer notable for its vertical images -- ladders, towers and the like -- but rather for the flat-top look created by its clusters and groups. All of this is in a good cause -- improved corporate performance fueled by greater individual commitment and less autocratic leadership -- but is it working?
My experience consulting with a number of these organizations tells me that the answer is no. Typically, the move toward corporate democracy begins with the effort to "empower" managers. What this often means is a few days of training in team-work or team- building and, perhaps, decision-making. Afterwards, individuals from the same management level but from different functional perspectives are given a room, a deadline, and some important decisions to make that require them to integrate their different points of view. Time passes; earnest discussions and sincere hard work take place; no decisions are made. As deadlines loom, individuals feel not empowered but demoralized over their inability to work successfully within the new structure.
These managers are not at fault; they have been given a Sisphyean task. Neither their past nor their current training or experiences have equipped them with the attitudes and skills needed to make key decisions cooperatively. In the absence of effective leadership, they are doomed to flounder in a sea of good intentions and poor communications. The ideas discussed below underscore why such teams have little chance of success in the new corporate democracy and suggest some solutions to this problem.
Without leadership, teams lack the cooperation and communication necessary to make key decisions. When faced with key decisions (e.g., a new computer system, strategic direction for the year 2,000), each functional group represented on a team has something important at stake -- profitability, turf, survival, are just a few of the possibilities. Decisions involve trade-offs between the goals of these different groups, and between group goals and larger corporate goals. Managers at the same level have neither the impartiality nor the organizational perspective to determine the appropriate trade-offs given the organizational objectives. Decision-making grinds to a halt as team members engage in self-protection rather than cooperation.
Because these individuals have committed to the ideas of team work and cooperation, no one wants to declare openly what his or her key issues are. Communication among team members serves the purpose of camouflaging, not conveying the truth. Behind the scenes, individuals are likely to spend inordinate amounts of time and energy marshalling support for their cause. All of these factors make team decision-making costly, inefficient, and demoralizing.
An example from the military world makes the difficulty inherent in these team decisions painfully clear. A battle rages. On one side, troops are threatened in three different locations. The general learns that reserve forces -- only enough to back up one location -- are on the way. He calls in the three commanders whose troops are in danger and asks them to decide cooperatively where the reserve forces should go. Each has a well-articulated and -reasoned argument for the value of defending the position of his troops.
Our society teaches individuals to value and seek unilateral control -- not cooperation and teamwork. The lack of true team perspective, the jockeying for position, and the hidden agendas behind overt communication, all have their origins in the education and training we receive at home and in school. There, someone -- the parent, the teacher, the coach -- is always in control. There, during conflict and competition, we're taught that it's better to win than to lose. There, we acquire beliefs and skills that prepare us to be the controllers and winners, even at the expense of others. At present, what we don't learn to do well, if at all, is subordinate our own achievement to that of others.
In observations at several organizations, I have found that almost everyone involved in teams espouses cooperative behavior and thinks they're acting cooperatively when in fact they're acting competitively. This only complicates matters further for the work of teams, who can't understand why they're not making progress.
What we control is information needed for sound decisions. The desire to control and to win, and the skills that help us reach those goals, don't good team members make. They impair our ability to share, seek, and receive information freely and objectively -- an important precondition for competent decision-making. One of our chief means of control is the control of information we have. Extensive research by Chris Argyris and Don Schon demonstrates that we share information that supports our point of view, and withhold information that raises doubts about our point of view or bolsters another's point of view. In a team setting, this means we deprive others of the data needed to understand and make decisions about a complex situation.
Focused on winning their individual points, team members tend to show an astonishing lack of interest in the information of others. They ask few if any substantive questions, relying on rhetorical questions to show they already grasp what's being said. Most of the conversations about important issues are data-free. Instead, they focus on individual's motives, and evaluations of their performance.
I attended a meeting not too long ago with a small team of executives who had been asked to choose a computer system to take them into the end of this century. In the course of considering various points of view, no one ever asked, "What's your data?", or "Have you done any research?" If you've already made up your mind, facts aren't very important or informative. But controlling information is not the only communication problem slowing down managerial teams today.
Most teams avoid difficult issues that might lead to conflict. In every organization, there are unspoken rules of good conduct. In most organizations, those rules say it's not acceptable to raise difficult and uncomfortable issues. Team members are rightly afraid that if they raise such issues, their position or their key relationships or their ability to get their job done will be threatened. The problem often is, unless these issues are brought into the open and resolved, no progress will be made on key decisions.
At one time or another, for example, most managers have worked on a team with an individual whose behavior is so hostile or negative or manipulative that it paralyzes the group's activity. The response, typically, is to avoid any direct discussion of the behavior, and to attempt to get necessary tasks done behind the scenes. Eventually, such teams fail due to the effort and time it takes to fulfill their responsibilities.
In order to succeed, teams either need intensive training or strong leadership. People can learn the set of skills necessary for true cooperation and productive communication. The problem is, this requires several years of intensive training. A more realistic antidote to team inefficiency and stalemates are leaders with the ability and authority to balance opposing objectives and make difficult trade-offs.
Effective leadership requires the exercise of power. Recently, I worked with a team of corporate Vice-Presidents among whom discord and turf battles were the norm. One V.P. participated in team meetings, then went off and did what he wanted without regard for agreements made there. In a survey, I learned that the individuals in this group shared a common perception: the senior Vice-President to whom they reported had no real power. Although nominally a leader, he did not command the respect that would have unified the group and caused them to implement his decisions. The team members were not convinced of the senior V.P.'s authority to act independent of the President. We solved this problem in part by clarifying what power the senior V.P. actually had and communicating that clearly to the team. The senior Vice-President exercised this power first by reorganizing the group and then by firing the uncooperative Vice-President.
In order to lead, individuals must have unilateral authority to do one or more of the following relative to those who report to them: hire; fire; promote, reassign; reward; and control the distribution of strategic resources. Another military example illustrates how critical unilateral authority can be in relation to the last of these items, controlling distribution of resources. After the invasion of Normandy, every Allied general who ran an army wanted to be first to get to Berlin. Allied policy called for all Allied armies to reach Berlin together. Eisenhower had authority for enforcing this policy, which he did by controlling gasoline. As soon as one army broke out in front of the others, Eisenhower withheld that army's gasoline until the other armies caught up.
This kind of authority can be hard to come by. Like the senior V.P. mentioned above, many individuals are assigned important responsibility without sufficient power to carry it out. This is taking away Eisenhower's ability to control gasoline while maintaining his responsibility to enforce the Allied policy. Such an oversight usually reflects a superior's ambivalence about an individual's ability to complete the assignment, or about giving up control. If leaders -- and their teams -- are to succeed, they must be freed from these constraints.
article - Copyright 1997 Don Rossmoore
Copyright© 2012 Don Rossmoore