Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Corporate Neighborhood

For Freud it was all in the family. He wrote a psychology that made every human relationship a function of a family tie. When he got around to analyzing social groups Freud chose to see them as large families, akin to tribes.

Within the world crafted by psychoanalysis there is no real place for friends and neighbors. As for strangers, a Freudian might even try to show how individuals try to understand anyone or anything they consider to be strange.

And yet, for Freud it all comes down to the family.

For Aristotle, social ties are more important than family ties and the primary social relationship is friendship.

Even on a superficial level, the distinction is clear enough. Family members remain family members no matter what they do.

What limits exist are at the extremes. For the most part we forgive family members derelictions we would never countenance in a friend.

Since we choose our friends freely we have more of our moral being invested in them and are less likely to forgive their bad behavior.

Perhaps that is why Aristotle made friendship the central relationship in his ethics.

Such were my thoughts when I read Art Markman’s assertion that companies should be more like a neighborhood and less like a family.

One suspects that neighborliness is supposed to comprise friendship, but Markman does not say so specifically.

Usefully, he adds a third type of social connection, or better disconnection... strangers.

Markman defines the different relationships well:

Strangers are people with whom we do not have a close connection; if we need their help, we pay them to provide it. Families are people with whom we have a close bond and for whom we do whatever is needed, often expecting nothing in return. In between strangers and family are neighbors — people with whom we have a reasonably close relationship, who offer us help, and expect help in return.

It’s not good to have a workplace that consists primarily of strangers, because every interaction becomes a fee-for-service transaction and strangers are not motivated to go above and beyond the specific tasks presented to help the organization fulfill its goals. Moreover, the social environment in a workplace full of strangers does not energize employees to want to come to work.

Likewise, it’s dangerous for most organizations to function as a family, because not all employees will pull their own weight. It’s an inefficient and demoralizing way to work.

Surely, this makes good sense.

Transactions with strangers differ from transactions with family members. With strangers, we purchase services. We and they do not belong to the same group. With family members, we do not charge for services rendered.

In business, a nepotistic hire can get away with more than can any other member of the staff.

Normally, we do not ask strangers for favors. Asking for a favor implies trust that the favor will be returned. If we do not have a relationship with someone—the definition of a stranger—we cannot expect that he will return the favor.

If people in an organization are functioning like neighbors, work is defined differently.

Markman writes:

But with our neighbors, we try to balance what we do for them and what we get from them over time. We construct covenants in which everyone shares a common vision and agrees to do what they can to work toward these common interests.

In a healthy workplace, neighbor-employees work hard, secure in the knowledge that the organization is looking out for them. The organization succeeds because its employees put in a reasonable amount of extra time and effort for each other.

Neighborliness involves reciprocity. It also involves what Markman calls “common vision” and “common interests.” This is not established by a blood tie but by a covenant, by mutual agreement.

How does one promote neighborliness in a corporation?

Markman explains that a company must first show that it cares about the people it hires. It must show that they are more than strangers hired to do some work in exchange for their salary. Thus, it should offer opportunities for advancement, as well as training opportunities.

Thus, a neighborly company is benevolent. At times it can show its benevolence by helping out an employee with a personal problem.

Convincing people that they are more than cogs in the machine is essential.

An executive also promotes neighborliness by interacting with his staff on a personal level. Clearly, it’s more about face time than it is about sharing intimacies.

In Markman’s words:

A second way to promote a neighborhood is to provide regular opportunities for employees to engage directly with higher-ups. Being a part of the neighborhood requires a feeling that the organization knows who you are and cares not just about people in general, about you in particular. Without some points of contact to the upper management of the company, a business unit might become a neighborhood, but that neighborhood may feel disconnected from the rest of the organization.

Note the importance of cultivating and fostering a sense of connection, a sense of belonging to an organization.

Within a neighborhood people belong to a place by proximity and propinquity. This gives them a common ground and a common interest. And yet, they need to perform certain actions to affirm the connection.

Finally, a company needs to have a common purpose. Everyone should know and understand what the purpose is and have an awareness of how his or her work is contributing.

In Markman’s words:

Residential neighbors are bound together by the desire to create a community that benefits the people who live there. Similarly, companies need a shared vision that transcends the individuals. For example, at the University of Texas (where I work), I have worked with our operational staff to help the various units (like construction, emergency services, and power) to reconnect with the mission of the university in order to make those units feel like a more central part of the neighborhood.
Finally, neighborly cohesion is shown by a willingness to do more than is asked. An employee who merely follows the letter of his job description and collects a salary is more like a stranger than a neighbor.

Of course, this ought to sound familiar. Didn’t the book of Leviticus tell you to love your neighbor and didn’t Jesus pronounce it to be one of the two greatest commandments.


David Foster said...

Interesting and perhaps useful metaphor. Important to add, though, that in a corporation (or other organization) of any size, there will be multiple neighborhoods, and the boundaries will be somewhat fluid. For example, consider an engineer working on the use of 3-D printing techniques for a component of a new jet engine model. He may simultaneously be part of the J-XXX engine development neighborhood and of a company-wide 3-D printing exploration team.

Organization design, along with incentives, largely determines what the neighborhoods are and how they are linked together.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you for the important qualification.

Ares Olympus said...

re: For the most part we forgive family members derelictions we would never countenance in a friend. Since we choose our friends freely we have more of our moral being invested in them and are less likely to forgive their bad behavior.

I could see the opposite, many people DON'T forgive family members, and can do this because they did NOT choose them, while friends, once chosen can have a lot more room for forgiveness, since you've already got an ego investment, and who wants to admit they pick bad friends?

And by corporation, it certainly depends on size too. A small company actually can act like a family, and may in fact filled by family members, and can afford some latitude of work quality if there is personal affection between members even if also family-like fights as well that could split everything. But this is certainly only possible up to some size, maybe 20-30 people, and then some shift occurs where regulation and rules take over, and the neighborhood or small town is born I guess.

I also think about the fact that they say the average job only lasts 5-7 years now, like a bad marriage I guess, so that's not a time to develop familial bonds and the virtues and vices of loyalty that exists there.

Anonymous said...

Stewart and others may find some interesting philosophy in the 165 page paper Justifying Law posted under a link on this page:

The core concept of this paper is that American law expects one to be a good neighbor when it comes to having respect for the will of others in life. This fosters cooperation and tends to minimize coercion under an authoritarian claim of right. I post it here only b/c it is the closest current topic.

Anonymous said...

When I heard CEOs say "Our employees are my primary concern" I prepared for the worst. We got it.

Patriot is now a dirty word to our cognitive elites. Or an empty one.

Politicians get rich - even in office. Bernanke makes $200K+ per speech. Such Wisdom was needed at his job.

The split between Left & Right is a hostile chasm between citizens (ostensibly also Elites).

Streams of foreigners (or, Undocumenteds) make mock of our National Sovereignty.

The center cannot hold. -- Rich Lara