(originally posted at www.thebusinessmediator.blogspot.com
I must reveal my bias up front. I am fascinated with the business organization. After many years as a lawyer, looking at business from the outside in, I wanted to know what makes it tick and why certain organizations are successful and the vast majority of others fail. It was in this context that I came upon my current philosophy of a successful business organization: 1. It has a clearly defined purpose and strategy, around which its leaders and employees are aligned; 2. Communication among and between employees is effective, regular and iterative; 3. Engagement in conflict is around the issues, rather than the people; and, 4. There is a clear and compelling operational road map --enhancing the organization’s ability to execute well on the strategy and purpose, and capturing the hearts and minds of employees. Achieving these four elements and maintaining them in a dynamic state requires a culture that supports collaboration, competition and conflict. There is an interdependence between both the elements and the culture.
Why do we need to collaborate at all--can't people just do their own thing? Simply put, collaboration drives efficiency in an organization. If people in an organization neither know their roles, nor execute them well together, then it will be difficult to ever move forward to achieve the purpose of the organization. Moreover, without some synchronicity of movement, the movement of the organization will be awkward, and cause unproductive conflict and morale issues among the employees. Collaboration must of course be born of a culture where employees want to work in collaboration with each other. I think that this culture comes first and foremost through a shared vision and a purpose beyond making money. Organizations, like people, need to know who they are and where they are going. There is an ordering to this, I believe, and the shared vision comes first. That does not mean that, once formed, it is static, but rather the shared vision feeds itself through the second element, communication.
Once the shared vision begins to spark collaboration among employees, then communication is the fuel that informs the collaboration. Communication around issues, around discerning ‘what’ and not ‘who’ is right, helps to create further clarity around the key organizational questions of “who it is,” “where it’s going” and “how it’s going to get there”. That in turn helps even more collaboration to occur. There is another benefit of the collaboration and communication: it is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There is a better chance of capturing the collective intelligence of those who are in regular communication with each other. However, there is a more foundational element that is essential to this organizational model and that is trust. We have not discussed trust as a separate element, and perhaps it is embedded in both collaboration and communication.
Trust is necessary in order to engage in conflict effectively in an organization. If people do not trust that they can be vulnerable with each other, and share ideas without fear of retribution, then the organization will struggle to harness the intelligence of its employees. Conflict over ideas, and collaborative inquiry, are essential to help an organization produce the best and most thoughtful solutions to the questions that need to be solved. Much like Wheatley’s theory of being “present” in order to respond to the fast-paced dynamics of today’s organization, creating trust and clearing the noise of doubt as to whether our ideas will be accepted and valued will inevitably lead to healthier morale and a willingness to engage in constructive debate. Having a system in place for employees to air their grievances and building trust in that system is a great step towards creating a culture of trust in which employees can and will express themselves openly and without fear. There are other elements that will help as well, which includes having leaders model the right behaviors around conflict--being open to new ideas, encouraging feedback and “walking the talk” around trust. Employees and leaders should also strive to be trustworthy, another enabler to a collaborative culture.
Competition, too, has an important place in a supportive culture. First, in a purely collaborative culture, there needs to be a catalyst to propel ideas forward or in an another direction, to react to new variables, or to innovate. Competition is paradoxical in that it is both isolative and collaborative at the same time. Football is a great example. Players compete against the other team, against their own teammates on the field, and those players who want to take their place. This helps to keep them sharp and improve their performance. Yet, much like in the prisoner’s dilemma-a seminal negotiation exercise, there is a time when competition becomes secondary to collaboration, and to pursue it as a strategy will sub-optimize results. This is true in business organizations as well. Without some competition, stagnation may set in. However, too much competition can erode trust and lead to divisiveness in the organization.
So, to achieve the right balance of collaboration, conflict and competition, an organization must first provide its employees with a reason to want to be present each day. Then, it should maintain an environment that is based on a foundation of trust and credibility, perhaps utilizing a conflict management tool. This will help to promote constructive and productive conflict around the difficult issues that the employees must grapple with each day. Successful conflict engagement leads to greater clarity around purpose and mission, and also better morale. All three of these greatly enhance communication efforts among employees, increasing the chances of the organizations’ survival.