Friday, June 5, 2015

Drawing a Line in the Cooperative Sand

In cooperative culture, it's important to cultivate flexibility and curiosity (in contrast with rigidity and combativeness). That said, this does not mean being infinitely malleable, or spineless. When does backbone properly get invoked?

While it's all well and good that you intend to work things out, what happens when that fails? When have you tried enough to reconcile differences and it's time to move on? When does the cost of continuing to labor with outliers exceed the benefits?

These are nuanced questions. 

Unfortunately, based on my experience working with groups in heavy traffic, there is a tendency for cooperative groups to both give up too soon and not soon enough. Let me explain.

Why Groups Give Up on Working with Outliers Too Soon
Probably the biggest obstacle that cooperative groups face is that almost all of their members have been deeply steeped in competitive culture and are, at best, at varying stages of unlearning what that means. In consequence, competitive dynamics have a way of infecting what happens in cooperative groups.

In the dynamic where the main portion of the group favors moving in one direction and a distinct minority (perhaps only a single person) is resistant to going along, I've observed a decided tendency for the group to respond in one of two ways (neither of which works very well): 

1. Easing off to let the minority sit with what they're doing (essentially, frustrating the will of the majority), figuring that one of two things will happen: a) the obstinate minority will do the math, figure out that they're being selfish, and accede to what the majority favor; or b) they'll continue to dig their heels in, squandering whatever social capital they have—ultimately resulting in it being easier to work around them in the future.

As an insidious follow up, the majority often carries this a step further, developing a story about how dysfunctional the people in the minority are being (which, left unchallenged, can progress to the person being labeled dysfunctional—not just their behavior). From there it is only a small step to giving up on the people because they are so problematic.

In this sequence, I frequently find, as an outsider with considerable experience in group dynamics, that the majority has gotten lazy and fails to see its role (inadvertent though it may be) in pigeonholing the outlier and not allowing for a different outcome. In essence, the group has given up on the individual(s).

Keep in mind that this analysis does not negate that outliers can have challenging communication styles.

2. Increasing the pressure on the minority to get them to cave in. Not because the viewpoint of the majority represents superior thinking (which they may also believe), but because it's unreasonable, even "uncooperative," for a few to hold up the many. I'm telling you, our conditioning in the essential justness of "majority rules" dies hard.

Why Groups Give Up on Working with Outliers Too Late
As groups actively work toward developing cooperative culture, there is a mistaken belief that this should translate to a lower incidence of conflict. Thus, when it appears likely that conflict might erupt, there is a tendency to move in the opposite direction—even to the point of placating someone whose emotional state is moving into the red zone.

Unfortunately, the outlier can take away from this experience the unintended lesson that working oneself into a tizzy can give you additional leverage in stopping unwanted developments. Yuck.

The group may have swallowed whole the ideal that anyone is welcome in the group (it's hard to say "no" and we value diversity, don't we?) and all views will be respected. While a good deal of the spirit behind such sentiments is admirable, it is a mistake, I believe, for such openness to be unbounded. I do not, for example, believe that all people are meant to live together (or be in the same group together). Some simply don't have adequate social skills to make it work.

Neither do I think that all viewpoints can be worked with. One of the reasons that groups go to the trouble of identifying common values is so that they can discern what kinds of differences the group is obliged to work through, and which they can set aside with impunity. While I'm not advocating for ignoring personal preferences (as distinct from group values), I am trying to make the case for cooperative groups not feeling obliged to accommodate them.

In fact, I think it's perfectly reasonable to be firm about not degrading a common value in the interest of satisfying a personal preference—even to the point of losing someone from the group over it. That said, drawing a firm line (whether in the sand, on the chalkboard, or in concrete) is almost never a good idea as one's first response. It should be a thoughtfully considered step, justified by the clarity of the value that undergirds it, and informed by a lack of progress after negotiating in good faith to find a mutually satisfactory resolution.

Whenever you are thinking that it may be time to get firm about your position, you should pause and ask yourself if:
o  You have been able to demonstrate to the opposition's satisfaction that you understand their viewpoint and why they hold it.
o  You have taken ownership of your part of why things have become polarized.o  You have made reasonable efforts to get help.
o  You have reflected on your own reactivity in the dialog and are proceeding from a centered place.
o  You are truly at peace with all that you have tried to unblock the stalemate.
o  You care enough about the principles that you are willing to suffer a potential loss of relationship.

If you can answer "yes" to all of the above, then proceed. Otherwise, there may be more work to do. Keep in mind that if you ultimately decide to draw a line in the sand, that you want others to view your action as coming from a place of integrity, not stridency. Give some thought to how you can set it up that way.

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