Friday, March 23, 2007/
Sick of office politics, turf wars and backstabbing? Then Charles Darwin would like a word.
Charles Darwin – the mentor you’ve been looking for
Oban Harbour in Scotland offers the Australian traveller the sort of vista worthy of 22 hours on a plane. It’s a postcard-pretty fishing village on the west coast of Scotland, the “gateway to the isles”. One of those isles is six miles long, two miles wide and made of slate. Luing, as it is called, is also home to two marine biologists who run a B&B, at which I once stayed.
They seemed an erudite and sophisticated couple. Books spilt from flat surfaces on to floors, a cello leaned against the sofa and the TV, unlike the gladiatorial position it occupies in most rooms, was tucked away in a corner.
“This is a lovely spot, but don’t you feel a little isolated here?” I asked.
“Isolated from what?” came the reply, dripping with admonishment. Clearly, this lady had dealt with ill-considered remarks of this nature before.
Seeing that I had blown my cover – a city boy who thought life was an arthouse cinema and a decent latte – I told my host that I was going for a walk, to the south of the island. In the way that it revealed how our minds rest on what makes us different rather than what brings us together, her reply bore into my brain: “Oh, I wouldn’t go down there if I were you. They’re a bit strange down that end.”
It’s this mentality that stops our marketing team from talking to our sales people and from accountants engaging in small talk with receptionists (yes, I know, it’s a stretch that one).
Whatever the creationists tell you, we’re still herd animals, seeking out differences in others as a way of forging bonds between those closer to us. It’s a dogmatic, reflexive approach to life that causes us to draw ever smaller circles around ourselves.
But while walking among like-minded folk may offer us a sense of security, it also means we can mistake friends for enemies.
I spent many years in advertising agencies where the account service people – those who actually dealt with the clients – were derisively known as “suits”. The “creatives”, those who shot the ads and wrote the copy, were simply “wan*ers”. And yet the agency’s business revolved around how well these two groups worked with each other.
We all know the dangers of this particular strain of corporate pathology. It undermines collaboration, sabotages communication and leads to a poisonous atmosphere of mistrust, which is a precise description of how, for example, the CIA works with the FBI and our state governments work with the feds.
How, then, can we avoid mud-slinging, turf wars, backstabbing, white-anting and all the other behaviours that this type of environment encourages?
In the animal kingdom, herds produce hierarchies and leaders. But top dogs generally only retain their position if they serve the interests of the herd. If you’re running a small business, whether you like it or not, you’re leading a herd. Your authority and the respect you garner will be a function of your ability to serve the interests of your staff and your clients.
If you behave like a chest-beating gorilla who’s only interested in adding to his personal stock of bananas, you’ll attract people who’ll be similarly self-interested. Before you know it, you’ll be fighting over the fruit.
The second point to remember is that in the long run, the herd is strengthened by a diverse gene pool. It means it’s less prone to epidemics of disease and the capabilities of the herd as a whole are extended.
Much the same applies to companies. If we employ people in our own image, or surround ourselves with sycophants telling us what we want to hear, we become more prone to the errors of group think. We should look to diversify our gene pool – employ people who will challenge our thinking, not reflect it.
But you don’t get a diverse gene pool unless individual members of the herd get to know each other, as it were. It’s no good having all your creatives around the pool table while the suits hang out at the bar. You need to give them the opportunity to realise, unlike my marine biologist, that we’re all pretty much alike and want similar things from life.
That doesn’t necessarily mean fancy courses or challenging weekends away in the bush – you simply need to give them the chance to get to know each other on a personal, rather than a professional, level. Lead by example, and put the interests of others above those of your own.
Pretty simple really.
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Susan writes: A friend of mine works in payroll at a large hospital. Many would consider it a mundane job, but she loves it and it sounds as though her enthusiasm rubs off on the people whose pay she looks after.
Recently she told me about being taken on a tour of the operating theatres by one of the clinicians so she could see first hand the work that they do. She was fascinated by the tour and thrilled to be offered an inside view of their workplace.
I thought it was a wonderful example of two people making a connection between two departments that might otherwise be seen as having nothing to do with each other.
Let’s have more of it!