This is a much longer post than usual; changes take time and space.
“Major changes in an entity [such as an organization, my words] take place on the boundaries. The most basic element of relationship is the boundary ‘not.’… Because all relationships are predicated in part on boundary ‘nots,’ changing the location of ‘not’ changes the entity’s relationships with itself and what it is not.” — Kenwyn Smith, in “Philosophical Problems in Thinking About Organizational Change.”
The example I will use below came from Smith’s philosophical article, which has the same setting in my entry on “parallel process” (read here.) There are at least two focal points in this example, the “Design and Engineering Unit” and the “women’s problems.” Obviously, I need to give you the basic context, which has to be lengthy to make sense. Context is what gives meaning to events or happenings in the social world; we need to go through it to get it.
The “Design and Engineering Unit” (Smith’s example) is one of the two units of the “Building and Maintenance” department for a state hospital. The department has about 600 people, of which the Design and Engineering Unit employed about 30. The director of the unit was Lumsford, who, when the example’s story begins, would have been fired, were it not for his boss’s, Catucci’s, intervention. Lumsford had two “rivals,” his assistant who competed for the same directoral job, and his chief engineer who didn’t think much of architects (and architecture was Lumsford’s background.) Below is the summary of the unit’s dynamics I provided previously:
“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 with minimal costs and so the 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, many times, 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 (his assistant) and the chief engineer, but given their difficult relationships, little wonder they couldn’t tackle this mess.
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.”
Recall that when the unit tried to “assert” itself, it simply locked the door for the thoroughfare, which resulted in an even more cantankerous atmosphere. Recall further that the building of relationships proceeds in analog terms, as a continuous trajectory; but in order to talk about a relationship, one needs to have access to digital knowledge, where “not” is located. Digital knowledge provides forms, structures, facts, patterns … which we use to understand relationships.
In essence, the Design and Engineering Unit never really grasped the “not,” the boundary with other operations in the hospital. Their mantra was “we’ll honor all work requests” even though in reality, they couldn’t handle the workload, and neither could they contemplate the idea of saying “no” to some requests in order to prioritize their workload. As a result of such a permeable boundary, they were “walked all over.”
Both digital and analog forms are necessary for an entity, be that a unit, a group, an organization, or a person, to define itself. Most of us can relate, but without capacity for digital understanding, we cannot distinguish between a symbol and what it stands for. Smith provides a clinical example of a schizophrenic: “…walks into a restaurant, reads a menu, concludes that the food is great, and proceeds to eat the menu card instead of the meal … then afterwards, complains of the meal’s bad taste.”
Thus it was with Design and Engineering Unit, confusing the symbol of the physical boundary, i.e. the door, with their own psychological and system boundaries that were so permeable. They projected their lack of support onto all “others,” making others the object of their frustration, not unlike the alcoholic with her bottle, illustrated in the last week’s entry. The unit’s door-locking behavior was their attempt to change others, as a result of thinking that changes to others would change themselves. This is the mistake that many parents make as well. As children grow, parents think that their rules and reasons should be the guide for the growing minds. When children inevitably grow up, parents who don’t attend to the relationships get left behind.
Though the door-locking decision was a disaster for the Design and Engineering Unit, it paradoxically opened the door onto their own struggle; they learned the power of “no.”
The other focal point evolved around “the women’s problems.” There was constant 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 drafting 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 pulling for her, doing sabotage and spreading rumors, eventually devolving into deliberately humiliating each other, the hostility became intense as time went by. Further, Smith and his colleagues observed that three cliques had formed surrounding three women, Bailey, Johnson, and the secretary who was caught in the crossfire. And not coincidentally, aligning with these three cliques were the three men themselves involved in their power struggle, Lumsford with Johnson, his assistant with Bailey, and the chief engineer with the third, so called, “independent” clique.
All the tensions, including real conflicts and imagined or manufactured conflicts, were played out in each of these three groups. The same event would be interpreted differently depending on the group affiliation: Some might think a project went to Bailey again because she was sleeping with someone higher up, and Johnson was jealous. Some might feel slighted, yet again, when they didn’t get the project, and others might say to themselves, “here we go again, these women fighting!” All the metaphors were rich, and the three women served as the screen onto which everyone made their own projection from their own interpretation.
It wasn’t till the two chief antagonists worked out their issues through their microcosm group that they began to realize that they could choose between reliving the metaphors, or attending to their relationship and altering the metaphors as well. The initial point of entry was through another “no,” when Johnson, who wasn’t a microcosm group member, wanted to join the guest seat in the microcosm without going through due process. After that denial, everyone was empowered to face the consequences. Drawing the boundary began to redefine some relational issues. Further, the microcosm group provided a new context in which people were given the legitimacy to work on specific issues. Many boundaries were redrawn and redefined, along with them the improved relationships. As the women’s “problems” resolved, the real tensions residing among the male leaders surfaced. Unpacking conflicts means tending to the “not,” the boundary, and thereby addressing relational issues.
When we adopted two kittens, our older cat had to undergo some major adaptations, a process with which all cat owners would be familiar. The distance between the older cat and the young ones had grown progressively shorter day by day. I observed the turning point came when the older cat was watching the little ones play (demonstration of a relationship.) Curiosity got the better of her and perhaps she remembered her play days with her deceased sister? The older cat progressed to sniffing the young ones and then gently hissing (without spitting!) afterwards, as if saying, “I’ll consider having a relationship with you at some point, even though your invasion still rankles me … and don’t push.”
What change would you like to experiment with? Don’t forget, start with the “not!”
I will take a break from this heavy topic and resume in this space July 15.
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.