Cooperative Culture Revisited

Today I’m blowing on the coals of an exchange I had right before Thanksgiving with my friend, who offered the reflections below on my blog of Nov 20, 2016 Defining Cooperative Culture.

As I am taking a few days off work, I thought I would comment on your latest very interesting blog. I think you are overemphasizing the differences between competitive and cooperative cultures, at least as far as organizations are concerned. Certainly, some of your points touch on matters that don’t generally affect organizational behavior, such as what people eat, but most of them do.

In fact, many of them are part of an organizational framework called Enterprise Risk Management. ERM is a management practice that analyzes ideas and problems from many different angles through frank and open discussion. ERM is specifically designed to avoid blame and to surface as many views as possible. But my comments are about more than ERM. The points you make have become staples of well-managed companies because they work.

I have limited familiarity with corporate for-profit culture and I’d never heard of ERM before receiving my friend’s comments, but you cannot have been raised in the US without deep personal experience of competitive culture, which is the bedrock of Western civilization. When he writes that I’m overemphasizing the difference between the two I wonder what familiarity he has with cooperative culture. I don’t say that to be snarky, but because I’ve worked as a consultant to cooperative groups for 30 years and the vast majority of my clients haven’t—to their detriment— bothered to define what cooperative culture is. In fact, a lot of my workload stems from groups that are ostensibly committed to cooperative principles yet bring unexamined competitive behaviors to the attempt, and it’s a train wreck.

To be fair, my friend may have highly relevant personal experiences with cooperative culture; I’m just not assuming that’s the case.

In glancing over the Wikipedia entry for ERM, it was a mixed bag. While there were aspects of its practice that seemed consonant with what I’m advocating, there were conspicuous absences when it came to my broader point about culture and mind set (more on that below).

o Caring about how as much as what

While there is lip service given to how things are done in the mainstream culture (don’t break the law, pay fair wages, and deliver what you promise) there’s no question but that the bottom line is king. The bottom line is ultimately king because unprofitable companies die. Moreover, the bottom line is a tangible goal that all members of the organization can relate to, since they all have their own bottom lines too. The bottom line is an essential team building metric in a healthy organization. In cooperative culture you’re just as likely to get into hot water cutting corners on process as you are if you deliver slipshod product. But, the bottom line is not an absolute monarch. “Caring about how as much as what” is simply another way of saying that the end doesn’t justify the means. A company in which people behave honestly and honorably is much more likely to be successful than a company filled with con artists.

There are several points to make here:

—Is the company thinking beyond itself? Is it factoring in its societal impact?

There is a difference between a company that takes societal impact into account because it feels it will ultimately lead to greater profitability and a company that does so because it is better for all (the good of the local community).

—Leaving aside outright misrepresentation and fraud, following the bottom line can lead to a company deciding to pay the fine for polluting local water sources because correcting the problem is more costly than the fine. This is a rational decision that protects stockholders, even though it quite likely trashes the local environment. (Carried to the extreme, you have the US cigarette industry that deliberately adopted a strategy of purposeful obfuscation and misrepresentation despite knowingly inflicting untold harm on the US population because they could ultimately buy their way out of liability and protect huge profits.

While few corporate swindles are so egregious—thank goodness—there could hardly be a clearer example of competitive culture run amok.)

—Rewards (raises, year-end bonuses, and promotions) tend to reflect corporate (owners) values.

Overwhelmingly, that emphasizes profits above good community relations. To be sure, there are exceptions (look at the way Patagonia is run), but practices tend to follow the money and mostly employees earn raises by boosting profits (we’ll scratch your back after your scratch ours)—far more often than by boosting neighbor relations.

—Companies have choices about how much they value employee moral or the impact of operations on the surrounding neighborhood. While I think the traditional analysis is that attending to these goals is just a more sophisticated cost of doing business; I am hopeful that headway is being made (among more savvy corporate owners) that these external factors (to the main line of making money) should more properly be considered base elements of enlightened corporate goals, because of the next point:

—Triple bottom line: profits, people, and planet; not just profits. This 20-year-old concept is a relatively recent example of efforts to shift traditional corporate thinking toward something wider and more sustainable; something more wholesome and more holistic. It is not anti-profit; rather it expands the target, so that social and environmental impact are also taken into account. This is the view that healthy companies properly take in account the culture and neighborhood in which they are embedded; they do not exist in isolation (and never did). Think of how dramatically this awareness would impact the discussion of whether to outsource production facilities?

o Thinking inclusively (no us-versus-them dichotomy)

Not going forward unless everyone can be brought along is quite a different mindset than trying to secure a majority of votes. In the former there should be no disgruntled minorities; in the latter outvoted minorities are collateral damage, and a way of life. The notion that everybody has to be brought along before action can be taken is pernicious, in that it vests power in the minority.

This is a pretty big fork in the road and I’m wondering if my friend has ever seen consensus practiced among people who know what they’re doing. He is right to highlight tyranny of the minority as a great fear, but it reveals, I think, only a shallow understanding of cooperative culture to presume that bringing everyone along is bad strategy.

I agree that you tend to get this dynamic in competitive culture, but that’s not what we’re talking about.

When I have posited a culture that does not devolve into us/them dynamics—one of the main tenets of cooperative culture—it misses the point to criticize it because of the potential for mischievous us/them dynamics. Yes, minorities can be obstructive; but what if they’re not? What if you build a culture where the expectation is that every on-topic voice will be worked with, where everyone has the responsibility to work constructively with differing viewpoints, and that some degree of dissonance is the expected starting point on every issue (else its resolution is trivial)?

Often, it’s a good idea to move forward even if not everyone agrees.

Yes, and sometimes cooperative groups proceed that way. People feel heard yet understand that they’ve not been persuasive and the stakes are such that they’re willing to let go.

Those that initially disagree may find that their opinions were wrong and learn from the experience.

Those that cannot agree no matter what may leave the organization for another that is more congenial, facilitating both their own and the organization’s growth.

That happens in cooperative culture (sometimes the values match is not good enough, and not everyone is willing to do the personal work needed to learn cooperative behaviors). In my experience though, competitive culture tends to mask misfits longer (or is more prone to giving up on people for the wrong reasons, such as a tendency to ask embarrassing questions, or to speak frankly).

o Going to the heart (rather than being nice)

Done well, cooperative culture is about plumbing the emotional and psychic depths of topics, not just the best thinking. Wherever there is tension we work to resolve it, not paper it over. ERM in a nutshell.

Maybe. My lingering concern is whether ERM (which I don’t know) is sufficiently expansive or facile to work in the non-rational plane. In my view groups do their best work when the following obtain:

o participants do their homework on topics to be discussed

o participants are disciplined about speaking on topic and not repeating themselves

o participants insert comments in the right place in the conversation

o participants listen carefully to what others say and identify first what they like or can join with in what others say before voicing concerns

o participants are allowed (even encouraged) to contribute in their “native tongue,” by which I mean from emotional, intuitive, or even kinesthetic knowledge—instead of insisting that everything be translated into the rational realm as a precondition for acceptance. If ERM does that, it didn’t show up in the Wikipedia profile.

o Placing relationships in the center

The weft and warp of cooperative culture is woven on the loom of human interactions. The stronger the connections, the tighter the weave. Good organizations value and respect the dignity of all employees (and customers too). Disagreements are essential for bringing out different points of view. The goal is to argue each issue on its merits, make a decision, and move on with everyone agreeing to abide by the group decision. This does not mean that decision is permanent; changed circumstances may lead to a changed decision. It does mean that everyone believes that all members have the good of the organization at heart.

I like this description of the organizational ideal, but let’s look deeper. There are times when there is a choice between relationship and problem solving. When that occurs, my overwhelming experience is that competitive culture will prioritize problem solving (reaching an answer within a time frame, say by the end of the meeting) at the expense of relationship (rather than laboring with people not ready to agree). The underlying message is “get on board or shut up”; which does not encourage dissonant voices to come forward.

While I think time is a legitimate factor in assessing the best use of plenaries (more and/or longer meetings are not necessarily a good idea; I think, for example, that time tends to be used poorly in most meetings across the board and first focus should be on trimming the fat and getting groups to seriously work toward adopting the standards I outlined above for meeting participants), in my experience when groups opt for cloture they are almost always trading time for relationship, and shorter meetings are almost always more expensive in the long run than dealing with the fallout of disgruntled minorities, where the cost shows up in the form of weak implementation (because one’s heart is not behind what was crammed down one’s throat); negativity brooding in the parking lot and around the coffee station; and hesitation to raise concerns next time (fearing a repeat dynamic), effectively undercutting the free-flowing discourse we all say we cherish so much.

When the priority is problem solving, the standard of success is securing a majority of votes (or convincing the boss); once that’s achieved you try to get the sucker off the floor and move on as expeditiously as possible.

When the goal is relationship you’re not done until everyone agrees you’re done. This does not mean until everyone thinks the same way; it means everyone reports they’ve said their piece, they feel heard, and they don’t have anything germane to add. Sometimes this leads to laying an issue down for more research or more seasoning; sometimes it means going with “x” under “y” conditions as a better choice than waiting.

o Being open to disagreement and critical feedback

In healthy cooperative groups there is an awareness of how vital it is to establish and utilize clear channels of communication among members whenever anyone is having a critical reaction to the statements or behavior of another member in the group context. Failing to attend to this leads to the erosion of trust and is damaging to relationship. Again this is a good description of how ERM, once embedded in the culture of an organization, works.

I appears my friend and I are aligned about this principle, which is good. The tricky part is actually breathing life into it in the culture. Even among groups avowedly committed to cooperative culture (the preponderance of my client base) I rarely see this well established. When it comes to doing the personal work needed to unlearn competitive behaviors and replace them with cooperative responses I’d say the four toughest nuts to crack are:

a) Being able to first respond to viewpoints that differ substantially from your own with something other than “but…”

b) Being able to talk openly about how power is distributed in the group, and what you want to do, if anything, about the imbalance.

c) Being able to work authentically and constructively (and not in reaction) with fulminating upset.

d) Being able to give to others honest critical feedback about their behavior as a group member and to receive same from them in return without defensiveness or stonewalling.

For most of us, the nightmare scenario (when receiving critical feedback) is when it arrives in an ugly package (you-statements instead of I-statements; delivered with attitude coated in nasty sauce), from someone known to be judgmental and close-minded. Yuck. This person is a jerk, they’ve had a reaction to something you did (what’s new?), and now they want to dump on you, perhaps blaming you for their having a bad day. Yuck! While you may have every reason in the world to blow them off, and aren’t in the least interested in a substantive relationship with that person, can you find it in your heart to sift for the potential truth in the muddy slurry of their diatribe?

If you can, then it’s an affirmation that you may have gone a long way toward completed your personal work in that regard—that you get it that it’s unwise for you to ignore information about how you’re landing with others. While you have choices about how you evaluate that information or whether you want to modify your behavior in the future as a consequence (being a careful listener dos not mean you have in any way forfeited your right to discernment) it’s important to you to have the fewest possible barriers between you and raw data about how you’re coming across. It’s in your best interest to welcome it all—even if the person offering it has no interest in your views the other way.

o Emphasizing access and sharing (rather than ownership)

A corollary to recognizing the primacy of relationship is that “things” take a back seat to people. In the interest of leaving more for others—both present and future—cooperative folks work to eat lower on the food chain and consume less. If we share, then access to things can be a reasonable substitute for ownership, and everyone can chase fewer dollars in order to secure a satisfactory quality of life. Sharing of information and transparency are hallmarks of a well-managed company. The idea of “leaving more for others” can be translated to mean building an enduring enterprise.

Again, I’m pleased that my friend and I align. I worry however, that in competitive culture (where the model is that the strongest prevail in a fair fight) that players are encouraged by the culture to aggregate power, not to share it. As hoarding information and masking motive (never mind intentional misinformation) are traditionally seen as aids in controlling power (gaining and keeping influence), I’m not convinced that competitive culture is nearly as conducive to promoting sharing and transparency as cooperative culture—where job evaluation will emphasize how well you helped the team succeed, and are not obsessed with personal credit).

o Taking into account the impact that your words and actions have on others

Another corollary is the realization that cooperative culture doesn’t work well unless it’s working well for all of us. That translates into mindfulness about how one’s activity lands on others. In the wider culture the model of good decision-making is competitive: that a fair fight will produce the best result (survival of the fittest). In cooperative culture we explicitly reject that thinking—because we know that life is not a zero-sum game where one’s person’s advancement is predicated on another person’s loss. I disagree with some of the terms you use like “fair fight” and “collateral damage.” If people are to be open in discussions they must be allowed to say hurtful things sometimes, but that’s a mark of trust not violence. As we say in our company, “everyone has a belly button.”

I’m pleased to hear that my friend has had enough positive experiences of corporate culture that he’s not found my comparisons of competitive and cooperative culture compelling. However, that begs the question: to what extent is this my unsophisticated understanding of the range of corporate culture today (that doesn’t sufficiently allow for cooperative practices to thrive in that environment), and to what extent is he naive about the depths of cooperative culture and the possibility of a sea change in group dynamics when practitioners do the personal work of unlearning competitive conditioning? Hard to say, and probably beyond the scope of this medium to resolve.

For all that though, it’s the right kind of conversation be having, and I’m heartened that we have so much in common about the culture we desire, whatever label we give it.



Category: Culture Shift

Tags: collaboration, Consensus, Cooperation, culture, culture shift, Group Process

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