Friday, March 6, 2015

Building Barns Instead of Silos

Throughout our working lives, we have joined forces with people, either willingly, (as in a volunteer organization) or unwillingly (as in being put on the same team in a work environment with someone we don’t like to work with.)  In the end, however, the goal of our time together was to advance some cause or complete a task or project.  People should work together, shouldn’t they?  Collaboration is a good thing.  We all know least in principle.  So the question is, why don’t people work together like they should?  Gaining an insight into this phenomenon is crucial for organizations, since often the only way to improve speed and synergy of ideas is to work together.  Consultants face this dilemma every time they work with a client attempting organizational change.  The literature is filled with the need for collaboration, but the issue of why people can seem to “get along” seems conspicuously absent, like the pink elephant in the corner no one wants to acknowledge.

Perhaps that is because we’re all a little guilty of not working together like we should, or maybe it’s because we don’t like the sound of the negativity, but let’s face it: this issue is an important one, so a dialogue would be valuable for us all.  The speed at which change happens in organizations is a factor of mission, focus, and most importantly, collaboration.  Co-laborers, mean we work together to get the job done.  some of you may have seen that wonderful scene in Witness, where a barn was raised by a group of people collaborating in a greater cause that served the greater good.  their co-operation touched us all, because deep inside, we want it to be that way.  So why can’t we all get along?

I posed this question to multiple people, including consulting and HR professionals across a wide population to assess why people can’t seem to work together.  The twenty responses are clustered around several different themes, along with some suggestions about how we might go about managing these issues to collaborate better.  The sample of respondents is broad, international, and gender balanced, across a wide variety of vocations.

Participants were asked to complete the following open ended sentence: 

 People in organizations have a difficult time working together because…

 One person responded with a great synopsis of the issue.

One could write a book or two on the subject.  I will limit my answer to ten minutes. We, not “people”, have a difficult time working with one another for a variety of reasons that are complex (involving many factors), dynamic (the factors interact in ever-changing ways), and often mysterious (unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unavoidable). 

            Organizational Consultant

According to those surveyed, people in organizations have a difficult time working together for six major reasons:  I’m only human!, Personality Differences and Personality Conflicts; Personal and Hidden Agendas; Perceived Fairness and Lack of Trust; Individualistic Management Practices; and Inability to Deal with Conflict.  I’ll take each of these in turn and offer some opportunities for consideration as we deal with this important issue.

I’m only human!

            The first reason for our inability to work together appears to be deeply fundamental, almost as if it is in our DNA.  Several respondents suggested that fear and selfishness are reasons people may not work together.  For example:

People in organizations have a difficult time working together because…

People in organizations have a difficult time working together because they feel threatened by today's highly competitive work environment in which skills and competencies change as technology changes.

Innovation and learning consultant

People in organizations have a difficult time working together because they are human... and that's what happens with humans every now and again, particularly when placed in an environment where they don't choose those they are with or they spend too long with them that even the little things get annoying.


Selfishness: I want my agenda and do all I can to make it happen.  If you and I can negotiate a “win-win” deal, fine.  But if we can’t it becomes difficult to work with one another.  There are numerous factors relating to selfishness.

President of a Consulting Firm.

Opportunities for improvement –

It is unlikely we shall change the fundamentals of human nature.  The literature is filled with the reality that people have fear of new things, fear of new people, and that fear and discomfort takes them out of their comfort zone, thus making it difficult to work together.  As to selfishness, that is a characteristic that might be better stated as “what’s-in-it-for-me?”   Anyone who has worked with groups understands that American culture in particular pushes individualism, individual accomplishments and thus fosters a refined sense of selfishness.  Yet without some answer to this question, consultants and managers will find it difficult to get groups to work together.  Simply knowing that these realities exist, as opposed to having some rose-colored-glasses view of how people “should” work together, will go a long way in assisting teams.

Personality Differences and Personality conflicts

            A second major reason people have a tough time working together is individual differences.  This is not hard to understand.  We all grow up in different environments; we react differently to different foods, music, and vents.  Every person has a unique life history that may match some of the vectors and tangents of the lives of others, but most of the time, we see the universe through our eyes.  It should not surprise us that our individual differences should be a major factor in our inability to work together.  

..."because many people have a very difficult time separating the personal from the professional..."

Dean of a College

People in organizations find it difficult to work together because of the wide variety of personalities, characteristics, and opinions each member of the organization may have. Trying to put these things aside and focus in on the one common point that brings the group together is sometimes difficult to do. 

Administrative Person

…Some are introverts, shy, have limited cognitive or emotional intelligence, dogmatic, "know it alls", lazy, have significant factual belief, attitude, or value differences, politics, ambition, unwillingness to take risks, devalue opinions and thoughts of others, are lousy communicators, poor listening skills… the list could go on for ever. 


because ...
·        they are driven by different goals/objectives that may clash
·        they lack emotional maturity
·        they lack the interpersonal skills necessary for resolving complex interpersonal situations

Sales executive and trainer

More often than not between two or more people of similar personality.  Two extraverted aggressive types butt heads, etc. 

President of a Consulting Firm.

2) Because of personality differences.  Personalities which complement each other are rarely considered when work groups are chosen.

Consultant and college professor.

Opportunities for improvement –

So how do we deal with this?  Getting this issue out in the open as opposed to hiding it is the right place to start.  Expecting everyone to match the behavior of the leader or the leader’s expectations simply doesn’t make sense.  Discussing differences in personality and how that can HELP the group process is of great advantage.  It relieves some pressure to conform, and acknowledges that people are simply going to be different.  Getting comfortable with the differences that makes the difference!  Sometimes I think the greater diversity issue we face is not gender or race, but the broad varieties of experiences we have all had in our lives, and how they have shaped us.  These things are the roots of who we are, and as we all know, they are very difficult to change.  Let’s face it: we are all products of years of decisions, learning, travel, interactions with various people, and we have formulated our view of the world through our experience.  Acknowledging this reality is a good starting point. 

Personal … and hidden… agendas

Here we find some of the tougher stuff.  Personal agendas are always lurking in the caverns of every mind.  “Aye – there’s the rub.”  Books on power like Kathleen Reardon’s Secret Handshake show insight into this insidious side of human nature.  Note the comments that follow:

Hidden agendas   Senior Analyst - Education & Organization Development

People in organizations have a difficult time working together because...they have different needs and goals -- in short, what motivates each person to behave as they do may be totally different, which can lead to conflict.

Professor New Zealand

Ideological conflicts: What I generally refer to as conflicting perspectives related to beliefs, values, and desires.  This discussion generally takes the form of what we think we “ought” to do.

President of a Consulting Firm.

We are able to see the faults and inconsistencies of others, but not our own.  We are better at understanding the motives of others than we are our own.  It all makes for a big mess.  By the grace of God we are able to get something done sometimes anyway. - Pastor

...they come to the table with different agendas.  People are held accountable for the completion of their part of the project not the whole.

Training Project Manager

Turf battles - power struggles

Senior Analyst - Education & Organization Development

Opportunities for improvement –
An “agenda,” at the end of the day, is really about need fulfillment, about power, about gains, about a desire to accomplish something from one’s efforts, about recognition, about feeling valued, about being “heard,” and about showing the world personal competence.  Managers must recognize this as they assemble teams.  It’s the pink elephant in the corner that must be acknowledged.  People have goals in mind whether they take a new job or a new assignment.  Personal fulfillment is to be an naturally expected undercurrent in the grand scheme of what makes people tick.  People work so they can gain promotions, and the income commensurate with greater responsibility and greater position. 
The consultant’s/manager’s role here is to accept that personal agendas will always exist, but carefully construct how their agendas will drive to accomplishing something greater, or and showing (really demonstrating) how putting aside their individual agendas for a greater good is better over the long haul for everyone’s agenda. One personal agenda that comes up again and again is the issue of competence.  People want to show their competence; it’s a cardinal rule of psychology,  so denoting how people fit into projects and “rewarding” them for their competence in the presence of peers, is a great way to provide psychological fulfillment to people and bring them to the greater cause.
As to turf wars and power battles, the only people who can really solve that issue are leaders at the very top of the organization through their example.  That example will be pervasive in its effects, either for good or ill. People watch how top leaders sort things out… its thre greater agenda, for the great good and mission of the organization, that must be the overall focus.

Perceived Fairness and Lack of Trust
            Another key issue that arose in the research is the idea of perceived fairness.  In other words, is everyone doing his or her part?   Is social loafing going on?  Is everyone pulling their weight?  What happens at the end of the project?  Will people remember the long hours I put in?  The family opportunities I sacrificed?  The family relationships that were strained?  Am I being heard?  All of these needs point to one thing: people want to be treated equitably.    

Note the following comments:

People in organizations have a difficult time working together because...they perceive themselves as working harder than their coworkers, and that their contribution is more important than their coworkers', which leads to resentment. 

--  Web Developer

People in organizations have a difficult time working together because people have different work ethics. 


People in organizations find it difficult to work together because...they don't know their co-workers and are very suspicious of their co-workers intentions.  New people to a group also will find it difficult since there is a natural barricade that seems to go up until the new person "proves" his worth to the group.  Sometimes, there may also be the fear of infringement into one's territory--afraid that someone else will either take credit for or undermine the other's work.

Administrative person

Issues of trust - More often than not caused by incongruent behavior.  I say I will do something, but don’t.  When my espoused theory (it is important to provide timely feedback) is significantly different than my theory-in-use (I seldom actually give such feedback), people begin to view me as dishonest and lacking integrity.  Trust begins to break down so that people have a difficult time working together.

President of a Consulting Firm.

Lack of appreciation for the inclusion of all ideas  and Organizational Politics
Senior Analyst - Education & Organization Development

Opportunities for improvement –

            Managers and consultants can build trust on teams through several means.  Being careful how they criticize people on the team is a major issue, since one person may see this as unfair and others may in turn take unfair advantage of the situation.  People have a sharp and keen sense of fairness which is rooted all the way back to their experience as children.  The recognition process used in teams is also crucial to perceived fairness, whether it is the amount of time the manager spends with individuals or how much time they spend together outside the workplace.  Fairness issues must be dealt with quickly.  Delaying the resolution of such issues only breeds a greater misperception of inequity, and spurs on conversations that focus energy on fairness and not the task at hand.  

Business Climate fostered by greater culture and by management – Individual accomplishments versus group accomplishments.

            One pervasive issue in the study revolved around individualistic management practices.  Note the following statements:

Because of the competitive nature intrinsic to many business environments - competition for power, for advancement, for rewards, etc.

 - Consultant and college professor.

People in organizations have a difficult time working together because American organizations design so much of their work and rewards to emphasize individual accountability and accomplishments.   These organizational designs reflect the American culture's high valuing of individuality as opposed to group identity in all of its social institutions. 

–Professor of Business

People in organizations have a difficult time working together because... the recognition/reward system supports individual accomplishment and puts employees and team members at odds.

Training Analyst and Consultant

.... because management often creates and sustains competitive rather than collaborative environments.


People in organizations have a difficult time working together because...everyone looks to individual gains at the cost of overall group/organizational interests, organizational politics plays a larger part in rewards than fair evaluations.

Assistant professor faculty of management studies University of Delhi India

Opportunities for improvement –

I find it interesting that a professor from India, completely across the world, should perceive the same individualistic approach to business that we perceive in the US.  We need to face the reality that people have personal life dreams and goals, which are supported by their work.  To disregard this fact is ignorance at best, and stupidity at worst.  People will not work for nothing.  Even altruism brings people some kind of fulfillment.  Having said that, there is truth to the notion that American individualism influences how people feel about accomplishments.  It is so bred into our business culture, that the normal way to extricate collaboration is through shared rewards and bonuses, based on the performance of the group.  

Until some managers understand the negativity that is bred in their organizations through the unhealthy competition they perpetuate unnecessarily, this notion of individualism is unlikely to change. 

Inability to resolve and confront difficult issues

            Although it was only mentioned once, conflict is an issue looming quietly in the backgroung of the collaborative process.  It takes skill and savvy, along with good role models, to sort out conflict. People simply don’t like conflict.  It is unpredictable, and sometimes flat out scary.  Perceptions of careers are sometimes won or lost in conflict situations.  

Most people, as sender or receiver, do not have the COURAGE or SKILLS to confront uncomfortable situations.

Industrial Psychologist and Trainer

Opportunities for improvement –

Dealing with conflict is a delicate matter.  People’s egos are at stake, along with their careers.  People who are strong minded are called stubborn and placed in that box, never to move higher up the ladder again because of a perception.  Since people do not know the outcomes of conflict, they are unwilling to engage it. Ultimately, this may be the one characteristic that separates the best managers and leaders and consultants from the mediocre, since the ability to manage conflict is crucial to getting people to “get along.”  In a non-profit organization that I am a part of, I recently witnessed that wounding of an ego, and how it contributed to conflict and ultimately the resignation of a person from the team.  No matter how delicately these things are handled, conflict is about ego, pride, and all the deep tough stuff of life.  If all parties can walk away with some dignity and self-respect at the end of a conflict, we can move forward.  In addition, an element of forgetfulness along with a sense of humor is a tool to bring resolution to difficult human situations. 

My personal perspective 

            I believe one of the reasons people find it difficult to work together is a level and strength of vision. No matter who we work with, and no matter what circumstance, something inevitably arises: someone knows the way, or is relatively sure they know the way.  If they do not have the patience to wait for others to catch up, or they cannot articulate their point clearly enough, they will get frustrated waiting for the rest of the team.  In some instances, there are team members, who because of experience of having “been there; did that” or training, or just flat out brilliance, can see “the way things ought to be.”  Often they are right!  When they are part of a team, they will manifest a desire to move forward more quickly than others they perceive as laggards, since the truly can see the outcome. The way to work with someone like this is to find out their success rate.  They may truly see something more clearly than others, and using their way early in the game may save a lot of time. 

Conclusion from the study

            People find it difficult to work together for many reasons. Sometimes just being aware of these things helps us to shift into a positive direction.  Helping people see a mission greater than their own agenda is a step in the right direction.  Providing people with consistent feedback and constancy of purpose will also help us overcome some of the obstacles to getting along.  But let’s face it, from the time we’re very young we start with a self to feed, clothe and fulfill.  Those deep needs are not going away.  So the secret is to use the personal agendas of all for the benefit of the whole team.  This will take work and effort, but the companies that are going to win in the next decade must make a diligent effort to solve this problem today. 
What I found conspicuously absent in the responses was a mention of issues of diversity or gender inequality. While this is a small sample and not representative of all populations, it shows that the barriers of working together to get a common goal accomplished probably transcend diversity or gender. In addition, the people who reviewed this article prior to press made little mention of diversity or gender. What they did say, however, was many of these issues resonated in their personal experience, whether male or female.

                So let’s go back to the scene in the movie Witness, where many individuals are working to build a barn for a fellow member of a religious group.  There were some tensions between individuals, but the overall accomplishment of the group was remarkable.  They built a barn, not a silo.  Working together, in its best moments, even including grudging respect for other members of the team, always yields something bigger for everyone to revel in at the end of the day.

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