Column: ‘Fix the Women!’

Parallel Process of Intergroup Dynamics: How Men’s Covert Conflicts Got Expressed in Overt Conflicts Between Women – Part I, The Case

Column by Elena Yang

The columns for today and for next week will be lengthy, and they need to be read in tandem. 

“Parallel process” is a complicated concept, like just all issues concerning group processes. 

I apologize in advance for the occasional jargon and the convoluted depiction – part of the nature of group processes. As always, I welcome your feedback. 

Now for today’s entry.

“Fix the women,” a request/demand by the director of the Buildings and Maintenance Division of a state hospital to my professor friend, Ken Smith.  

The follow-up, diagnosis and intervention provided by Ken Smith and his colleagues formed the basis of a fascinating article, “Fix the Women”:  An intervention into an organizational conflict based on parallel process thinking.

In today’s space, I will focus on describing the situation, and will provide the intervention method and results next week.

The women thought to so need “fixing” were two of the five female employees in the 30+ staff of the Design and Engineering Unit, part of the Buildings and Maintenance Division, which employed 600 people.

This particular unit seemed to have caused constant problems for the director Catucci who made the call to Smith. When Smith responded to his “fix the women” with “we’d better talk,” Catucci said, “Ok, but let’s do it soon. It’s getting really bad down there.” (emphasis mine)

As Smith pointed out, in two short sentences, Catucci had provided several hints of what the “women’s problem” entailed: sexism, latent hierarchy, control, and violence, as if “fix the women” was akin to fixing some alley cats. 

Since Catucci had worked with Smith before, he had some clear expectations, i.e. organizational problems cannot be treated with quick triage but most likely need to be attended to with methodical care

And the first step is to provide organizational diagnosis: A fundamental lesson in working with organizational problems is never to assume that the problem identified by the contacting agent is the real issue. Or, as Smith pointed out in the article about diagnosing and intervening in organizational conflicts:

  • Conflict often surfaces in a location quite remote from its place of origin.”
  • “Few or no identifiable signs of the conflict may exist where it began.”
  • “The path by which the conflict was transported from one place to another may be invisible.”
  • The form of the conflict may change as it changes location.” 

So, immediately, Smith knew the “women’s problems” were likely rooted in conflicts elsewhere. One of the principles in his method of diagnosis and intervention is to mirror as much as possible the dynamics of the studied organization in his team of consultants. He thus invited two females (the co-authors of the article) to work with him on this problem.

As they began systematically interviewing everyone in the Design and Engineering Unit, along with observation data, they watched for signs that the “women’s problems” were really about conflicts among the top three male authority figures, the Unit’s director, his associate director, and the chief engineer. This is what Smith called “parallel process”:

When two or more systems – whether these consist of individuals, groups, or organizations – have significant relationships with one another, they tend to develop similar affects, cognition, and behaviors.”

Once the process begins, no one is immune to it, and it can move from one corner to another, or from one level to another, changing along the way. 

For instance, two directors may be competing for resources, but decide to suppress their hostility and act “professionally” to collaborate. 

However, they may each cause, explicitly or implicitly, their respective subordinates to fight for their own units. So what may start as top-level struggles for resources become fighting for cost-transferring measures between groups at lower levels. 

The specific dynamics in the Design and Engineering Unit was manifested in the  fighting between two women, one of whom, Bailey, was the only interior designer in the hospital and the other, Johnson, an aspiring interior designer, was currently doing draft work in architect’s office. 

Bailey’s position allowed her to develop a network with others throughout the hospital while Johnson’s contacts were mainly within the unit. These two used to be friends, working with each other for years. 

However, as Johnson began taking courses in interior design, rumors began that she was out to get Bailey’s job. And since each woman had her own network supporting her, but also doing sabotage and spreading rumors that eventually became downright deliberately humiliating for each other, the hostility became intense as time went by. 

One incident was especially vicious. Johnson developed a severe case of acne during a difficult period. One day, she found an advertisement on facial cream in her in-box, with a note signed by Bailey, “with love, Gwen.” 

While Johnson acknowledged the incident, Bailey, when asked, unequivocally denied her involvement. The consultants saw no reason to doubt the women’s words. So, someone else did this.

During Smith’s and his colleagues’ data collection (group meetings, interviews, and observations), they found that aside from the five women in the unit, the men always seemed to relish re-hashing the stories even though they did admit that the clash contributed to their dissatisfaction at work. 

The consultants wondered whether the two women’s conflict could have persisted, and produced such impact at work, without the collusion of others. 

When pressed about what they had done to “cool down” the tension, the men indicated that the animosity was so strong it could not be tempered. 

This raised a red flag for the consultants, and lead them to suspect that the men actually had an emotional investment in the women’s struggles. 

In other words, the women’s conflict had served some function for the unit as whole; they were essentially the repository for the unit’s suppressed problems. 

As the consultants dug deeper, they found:

1. The Unit’s director, Lumsford, a born-again Christian, almost got fired when he was found distributing religious materials to the group, including two Jews. Catucci argued to the hospital administrator (who initiated firing action against Lumsford) that due process was ignored and that Lumsford should be given another chance. So, in essence, Lumsford was on probation.  However, as the consultants began their work, they learned that Lumsford was looking for another job and his resignation was only a matter of time. 

2. Lumsford’s associate director, Ertman, was an architect, who didn’t have an engineering background like Lumsford. There is built-in tension between these particular professional groups, engineers and architects. More importantly, Ertman was hired as the associate director when the director’s job was given to Lumsford; they were both candidates for the same job, and Ertman’s appointment was made without consulting Lumsford.

3. While these two appeared professional without ever referring to their awkward history, the consultants pressed and found that at least Ertman occasionally did feel vindicated whenever Lumsford’s management style was criticized. 

4. In addition, the chief engineer, who would be a candidate for Lumsford’s position when he resigned, would not consent to report to Ertman; after all, he was only an architect. (side-bar:  I alluded to this type of diversity issue as prominent in many organizations.) So, the senior engineer reported directly to Lumsford, and in Lumsford’s absence, Ertman had no authority over the engineers. 

5. But in the face of Lumsford’s leaving, Catucci had already let it be known that the director’s position would never go to Ertman, which raised the friction between Ertman and rest of engineers.  In the end, Ertman reluctantly consented to take th position on an acting basis until someone from outside would fill the job. 

6. On top of it all, the whole unit had a problem of saying “no” to requests for work from the hospital. The foundation of this problem was in the nature of the anemic funding typical of state agencies. The buildings were constructed to minimal budgets and so wear and tear were constant problems. How things got done and prioritized depended on the political connections of the people requesting work. But of course, who had the more political power often rested in the eyes of beholder, and no consensus on such power ranking could be achieved. As a result, often, work didn’t get done on time, or at all. There were no formula or criteria by which to judge the scope of requested work and to set up priority. This should have been the responsibilities of Lumsford, Ertmen and chief engineer, but given their difficult relationships, little wonder they couldn’t tackle this mess.  

7. It didn’t help when the unit’s physical layout reinforced the feeling that they were being “walked all over.” The rest of the 600 people of the whole Building and Maintenance would use the unit as the thoroughfare to get to restrooms and the time clock that was located one floor below the unit. While there are routes from outside leading to the basement, it is much easier to go through the unit, especially during bad weather. It never occurred to the unit to request relocation of the time clock.

8. And oh by the way, if this wasn’t bad enough, there was a complication brought on by one employee, Chet Walls, a 55-year old recovering alcoholic who had always attributed his “success at staying on-the-wagon” to his fellow employees’ support. The problem began when Walls started his own business on the side, and began openly using office resources to conduct his business, including some staff time and effort (sometimes with a little payment).  The staff were afraid of confronting him or saying no to him because he would hold over them the threat of going back to drinking. 

One of the consultants’ first finding: Three cliques had formed, distinct yet covert, each taking a strong position about the “women’s problem.” One supported Johnson, one Bailey, and the third one was for those who were determined to “stay out of the conflict.”  Yet, the third group spent so much energy in NOT taking sides that they were de facto participants in the conflict.  Just about everyone in the unit was in one of the three cliques, except those who were offsite doing construction, and felt more identified with their contractors as a result. 

Especially interesting was the point that each of these three cliques had one of the three principle male authority figures as their members: Lumsford was with the group siding with Johnson, Ertman with Bailey, and the chief engineer as the leader of the so-called “independent” group. How each group handled the emotional stress is best summarized in the Smith, et al article:

The group including Lumsford and Johnson had adopted an attitude best described as ‘the goodness in us will ultimately triumph over the evil in you.’ These persons considered themselves warm, caring, and supportive of one another. In contrast, the group including Ertman and Bailey acted as if they were on a moral crusade whose motto was ‘Fix things now!’ The group including the senior engineer acted as if all of the unit’s problems were Catucci’s fault, and that he alone was responsible for solving them.”

What do you think the consultants should do for intervention? Would it work or help to tell the unit staff all the above facts and observations, especially the cliques?

Would they have accepted this approach? Like the difference between catching fish for someone and teaching that someone how to fish, so it is with solving organizational conflict; experiential learning is always the most effective. 

I will discuss the intervention technique in next week’s column. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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