Not on your own shoes, please …

Let it never be said that business is slow to respond: the inevitable ‘business lessons from the US Government shutdown’ articles have already started (and I am also about to stand guilty as charged). As individuals, we each have our own take on the world and draw our conclusions and our parallels. The unnamed writer behind a Mintek blog post saw circumstances in Congress as equivalent to a clash between sales and operations in the hotel industry (which, I suspect, they either work in or advise – we all tend to see the relevance of what we do, regardless of where we look). Jack Welch – who shouldn’t need introduction – sees a different lesson entirely: titling his argument Schmooze or Lose: How the Lost Art of Negotiation Led to a Shutdown, It might normally take a brave man or woman to disagree with Mr Welch, but a number of respondents have, including one who plain-speakingly said:

Negotiation? Over what? That train left the station in 2009 when the Affordable Care Act was voted on, passed, signed into law and upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court. The time for negotiating has passed.”

ASK is not, of course, in the business of politics, although we are perhaps in the politics of business. Among the conclusions that might be drawn from looking across the Atlantic are not only that effective working relationships are important in any organisation (as another respondent on Welch’s article put it, “When one side takes the “my way or the highway” stand, then everyone loses”), but that sometimes the pursuit of a single, personal goal or agenda can become so determined that the broader picture gets lost. Indeed, a stance can be taken that so obstructs sympathy, that even the issue in question may be lost. As Public Policy Polling has shown, Congress’s approval rating is currently just 9%, and it is also less popular than head lice, colonoscopies, used-car salesmen and Brussel sprouts. This was – like the recent reaction to the Daily Mail/Ed Miliband scenario – not the response that was intended, but perhaps passion has obscured the wider view.

Are there business parallels beyond this single point? As with sports, we should be wary of drawing them too hastily: organisations are generally not composed of individuals ‘representing’ a wide constituency, and their statutory obligations are very different. (Nor, as we’ve shown before, are economic parallels between countries and companies truly realistic.) But strident pursuers of specific aims are found in many aspects of human life, and our workplaces are no exception. We might individually need to be something wiser and loftier than ‘human’ not to have sympathy with a quote from GK Chesterton when we encounter them:

It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It’s that they can’t see the problem.”

Over-simplification is an inadequate response here. As conflict consultant, Kathleen Bartle pointed out in her comment on a Forbes’ article, 5 Keys to Dealing with Workplace Conflict, there are a range of underlying reasons for troublesome behaviours (we are paraphrasing here, but the original version remains online):

1 Abrasive Behaviors: Abrasive people are really unaware of their behavior. […] They have empathy for other but lack self-awareness. They are easy to coach and they respond to good coaching.

2 Manipulative Leaders: These bullying types believe aggression improves productivity. Manipulative leaders lack empathy for others and are tough clients but they can learn new management styles.

3 Troubled People: Those with a true “character disorder” do not respond to coaching and perhaps not even therapy. […]

4 Strategic Aggressors: Strategic aggressors know what they are doing and are aggressive because they are trying to win. […] No empathy here. But, the attacks are not personal either.

5 Bullies: Bullies are filled with fear, but they are quite different from the other aggressors. They tend to target one person and once they have destroyed him/her, they move on to another. This type of aggressor lacks empathy and their attacks are very, very personal.”

Dealing with these behaviours – as Chesterton’s words suggest, like so many aspects of organisational life – requires us to ask the right questions before identifying how to proceed: see the wrong problem and you reach for the wrong solution. Easier said than done, of course, and our human nature may not always be helpful. As Timothy Bednarz has written:

Research has demonstrated that there is an unconscious tendency in individuals to enhance their own side of a conflict, portraying it as more insightful, honest and morally upright. An associated phenomenon is the tendency to vilify the opposition, portraying them as both unscrupulous and vile.

[…] When applied to the aforementioned concept of biased assimilation of information, it is obvious how conflict intensifies when one group strongly believes in their viewpoints while simultaneously vilifying their opponents.”

When situations reach this level, organisations – unlike their counterparts in Congress – are perhaps fortunate to have recourse to disciplinary sanctions, conciliation services, arbitration and ombuds when prevention (through training, team building and coaching) fails to prevent. (You might like to download The “5 Ps” of conflict resolution: Designing systems to manage workplace disputes for a more detailed look at many related issues.)

The harder challenge, perhaps, is to identify when it is us that are being unreasonable, and starting on a journey that may well end in conflict. Stark questions-to-self along the lines of “Have you remembered where your salary comes from?” are much clearer and easier to answer than “Is my opposition or antipathy to this issue ultimately constructive?” or “For my own longer-term satisfaction, might I do well to consider starting to plan either a change of position or a change of behaviour?” Organisations find it difficult to notice and monitor the early signs of possible dis-engagement, and their eyes are on the larger agenda: individuals are likely to find this harder. To quote Timothy Bednarz again:

How a problem or conflict is perceived and defined impacts its resolution. Personal agendas and perceptions can create a bias that adversely affects the definition of the problem and, ultimately, the solution.”

Meghan Casserly’s Forbes’ article, Are You A Bully And Don’t Even Know It?, may be at a slight tangent to our main argument, but includes links to behavioural questionnaires that might shed light on your own dark side (and the Hogan Development Survey is available to those with perhaps more serious concerns), as well as some ‘stand-out’ facts: the majority of workplace bullies are actually women, and other women are their main target. But Albert Einstein may have inspired Dwayne Spradlin to a more concise and apposite starting point in a 2012 Harvard Business Review blog.

Using a question as his title – Are You Solving the Right Problem? – takes us back to Chesterton but also moves us forward, to check if we are asking the right questions. Spradlin writes about innovation and organisations, but if we don’t indulge in a personal reality check from time to time is the outcome not broadly similar? When we address the wrong problem, or address a problem wrongly, it’s not just ourselves that we ultimately derail. Let’s finish with Dwayne’s opening words:

“If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it,” Albert Einstein said.

Those were wise words, but from what I have observed, most organizations don’t heed them when tackling innovation projects. Indeed, when developing new products, processes, or even businesses, most companies aren’t sufficiently rigorous in defining the problems they’re attempting to solve and articulating why those issues are important. Without that rigor, organizations miss opportunities, waste resources, and end up pursuing innovation initiatives that aren’t aligned with their strategies. How many times have you seen a project go down one path only to realize in hindsight that it should have gone down another? How many times have you seen an innovation program deliver a seemingly breakthrough result only to find that it can’t be implemented or it addresses the wrong problem? Many organizations need to become better at asking the right questions so that they tackle the right problems.”

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