Monday, April 25, 2022

Less Workplace Drama, More Cooperation

In a country where politics has been polarized and where psychodrama is the order of the day, no one should be surprised to discover that people who work together are having trouble working together.

That is, their relationships are frayed and fraying. Their interactions are more likely to be contentious than cooperative. And the looming threat of being fired or canceled for saying the wrong thing, using the wrong pronoun or even looking the wrong way makes constructive and cooperative interaction nearly impossible.

Our woke culture has introduced a threat quotient into everyday conversations, to say nothing of a massive amount of confusion over who is which sex and who prefers what pronouns. So, instead of defaulting to trust, as one would do in a cooperative and collaborative relationship, we default to distrust and prefer to shut up and therefore to mitigate risk, to ourselves, to our families, to our careers.

In a world where the psycho profession touts the virtue of complete independence, full autonomy, and individual self-fulfillment, it is slightly strange to read an article about how much people want to live in a workplace environment that is characterized by social harmony. After all, if your goal in life is individual self-actualization, you can kiss social harmony good-bye.

It should be fairly obvious to everyone, but people are having trouble working together. Virginia Backaitis reports for the New York Post:

“One person makes a proposal about how we should package a deal, and the next one to speak cancels him,” said Tom (last name withheld), a 40-year-old Hoboken, NJ, resident, who said that while some team members don’t understand how things work, others have “weird” biases or are simply argumentative. “It can make the job frustrating,” he said. “We’re supposed to be working together, not against each other. We’re here to do deals.”

Of course, all of these people learned the lessons that therapy culture has been teaching, namely that they must give free and full expression to their deepest feelings, and that they should not fear turning the meeting into psychodrama. Besides, isn’t politics and isn’t the media based more on what we can shut down than on what we can discuss openly and dispassionately.

Backaitis continues:

While it might be nice if the world stood still so everyone could collectively catch their breath, it’s not likely to happen. So instead, it’s up to our leaders — and ultimately, ourselves — to find the tools we need to create work relationships where, in spite of external circumstances, we can work alongside one another more harmoniously.

To her credit the author asks executive coaches-- in whose ranks I sometimes find myself-- for some advice about how to solve the problem. Surely, this is better than asking a bunch of psycho professionals, who are likely to drool about the magical powers of empathy.

And yet, almost on cue, the coaches in question open with some nonsense about empathy. They are thus offering some genuinely bad advice. Apparently, empathy, which they do not understand, requires us to treat each other like children, specifically, like 5 year-olds. No kidding:

Think about the co-worker you’re in conflict with as a 5-year-old-child, innocent and ignorant. “Don’t let the adult they are showing up as stand in the way of who they are as a human being,” said Joel Garfinkle, executive coach, and author of “Difficult Conversations: Practical Tactics for Crucial Communication.” “Find something to talk about that’s not the subject of your difficulty.”

Had we been looking for muddled thinking, we could not have done better. In truth, if you treat adults like children they are going to be offended and are going to cease cooperating with you. The notion that an adult is really a child, because that is who he is as a human being, defies reason.

As though that were not bad enough, we have another coach advising us to pretend that we are at an AA meeting. They tell us that we should thank people for sharing, for exposing their vulnerability. One thinks well of AA meetings, but making them the model for corporate board meetings is monumentally stupid. It can only lead to dysfunction. For the record, people share at AA meetings because they are, in principle, anonymous. When you are titled and consigned to an executive position, the last thing you should do is to start acting like you were dealing with an alcoholic. Whereas company meetings are designed to accomplish something, to set policy and to implement it, AA meetings are decidedly not.

So, here is another lesson for how not to do it:

“I have to hold myself to being open and to truly hearing them without getting triggered, without getting defensive and without wanting to jump in,” said McCleary. “When they’re done speaking, we thank them for sharing. If they’ve shared something that has really crossed our values or even thrashed our values, we have language for that, and it’s respectful language, and it says, ‘I really hear what’s at stake for you. My values are this, and so I don’t agree with you. But it was a wonderful conversation to hear what matters most to you, and here’s something that matters to me.’ ”

The next piece of counterproductive advice begins somewhat promisingly, with a notion that reduces to-- making small talk. Surely, between seeing people as recovering alcoholics confessing their temptations and engaging in small talk about the furniture, we prefer the latter, largely:

When you enter a conversation, “lead with a question, one that genuinely wants to understand the seat that they sit in, the pair of glasses they are wearing,” said Edwards. “Our research has shown that in the end, people really want to work together. They want to collaborate. They want to be happy.”

But, she adds, when things get tight, we often jump to a judgment, which means we will never understand another person.

“Attempt to understand what it’s like from their lived experience,” she said. “We can bridge gaps and understand each other better.”

Again, there is the old empathy rearing its ugly head. This notion that we should try to understand everyone’s lived experience has been floating through the Zeitgeist. It is a very bad idea. You do not want to understand how people feel. You want to treat them as corporate managers or even staff members and to consider their contributions as a function of the task being addressed. We are not and should not be trying to understand each other better. We should work together to achieve a goal. In truth, there is no way you can understand anyone else’s lived experience. We should tell people to get over themselves and to cease whining about their lived experience-- which whining usually ends up defining people by their grievances. This will naturally cause people to grate on each other. And we do not want that.

So, we finally come to some advice that makes some sense:

Studies conducted by Harvard professors Julia Minson and Francesca Gino show that workers aren’t, for the most part, as diverse on a given matter as they think they are.

“In our executive education classes, we have found that teaching leaders how to find points of agreement with people who hold opposing views makes them more willing to engage with information from them,” the pair wrote in a Harvard Business Review article.

Of course, find the points you agree with and emphasize them. Do not look for the points you disagree with and denounce them. Cooperate and collaborate, don’t dramatize. 

If you were feeling complacent, the next piece of advice will disembarrass you of your optimism. The next coach quoted suggests that we should make it all about people as individuals:

Come from a place of acceptance versus resignation, said Sarah Noll Wilson. Not: “Throwing our hands up, saying, ‘That’s just how Terry is, there is no changing him.’ ” Acceptance is understanding the situation for what it is and even if you don’t agree, choose to work within the reality and show up in a way that best serves you and the situation.

So instead, “Say, ‘I know this is how Terry is and while I cannot change him, I can control me and how I show up.’ ”

How about not making it all about Terry. Consider what Terry has been saying and try to refashion it to make it sound cogent. Treat Terry like someone who is contributing, not someone you need to diagnose. Treat people like competent adults and they might just start acting like competent adults. Unfortunately, with a couple of exceptions, the advice that these coaches are offering is the problem, not the solution.


David Foster said...

It strikes me that a lot of people have rejected both individualism AND any form of meaningful organization or group membership, in favor of anomie and and endless search for faux identities.

I know the above isn't very well-stated; I'm posting it here mainly to remind me to come back and try to improve the thought.

David Foster said...

Something that seems relevant: Marc Andreessen reports that many people and organizations are uncomfortable with the word 'management', to the point that even the term 'product management' gets avoided:

Anonymous said...

"Show up," Lived experience:" Whenever I read therapy speak BS like that I know it's uttered by a woke nut-job.

370H55V said...

None of this would even be on the radar screen without the tidal wave of feminism that washed up all over corporate America, academia, government, and even the clergy. Get rid of the women and you get rid of the problem.

Gibson Block said...

"Treat people like competent adults and they might just start acting like competent adults".

That sounds fairly idealistic to me. At best, it sounds like the advice you rejected about treating people with respect. Which is really all that those other people were saying about AA.

I don't think that you can count on people to act like competent adults at home where they can simply tune you out or have a tantrum but at work you have a better chance.

David Foster said...

One tactic I've found useful in business debates: restate your opponent's position, as honestly and clearly as you can. "OK, I think you're saying that we should exit the Gerbilator product line because revenue growth sucks, margins are mediocre, and there's a pretty powerful competitor in the that correct? OK, my view is that revenue potential in this industry is going to sharply increase because...etc"

Don't be sarcastic, don't oversimplify opponent's position, just lay his key points out and respond to them. Can work very well.

Anonymous said...

we need to be open to new formulations and partnerships for rugged individualism. As Tocqueville pointed out, American individualism was never a purely selfish, inwardly focused kind of individualism. Americans combined their individualism with a volunteer spirit, a tendency toward forming associations, and other practical qualities. Hoover, who coined the term rugged individualism, said that in America it was absolute loyalty and service to multiculturalism. Historically, the practice of racism held that members of low-status races should be limited to low-status jobs or enslavement and be excluded from access to political power, economic resources, and unrestricted civil rights. Members of low-status races could encounter segregation, acts of physical violence, and in some places, racism dictated that it was unnatural for members of different races to marry. It made a good story, showing how those two boy geniuses managed to conjure up the long-awaited alliance of evangelicals and conservative BBCatholics. The only trouble is that it was not true. Bush won the Catholic vote in 2004 not by making inroads among traditionalist Catholics, but among less observant ones. Infrequent Mass-goers accounted for the lion’s share of the difference, going from supporting Gore in 2000. Raycis' means promoting, rooted in, or indicative of raycism!, as in racist ideology or racist comments. It can be used as a noun meaning a racist person. Racism is most commonly used to name a form of prejudice in which a person believes in the superiority of what they consider to be their own “race” over others. This most often takes the form of believing that those with other skin colors—especially darker skin color.

370H55V said...

@David Foster

Roissy used to cite that strategem in the context of game. He called it "agree and amplify".