Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Conflict and Decision Making in Organizations

Encountering conflict is rarely fun and people go to great lengths to avoid it.  But with none, there would be no change.  In this essay I will begin with conflict at the very lowest level, Darwinian evolution, and work my way up to complex organizations using the same principals.  

Evolution is a simple process in which strife plays a central role.  Richard Dawkins, in his seminal book The Selfish Gene (1976) wrote that all that is needed for evolution to take hold is three things: 

  1. Something matters (has contact with the outside world)
  2. It can replicate
  3. Sometimes variations occur
Look closely. Number 3 is conflict, pure and simple.  It’s a difference of opinion, just in the language of DNA.  Say all egg shells were perfect for a time, then the environment changes and the shells might be a little too thick or thin.  Neither is good for the chick.  Then one bird lays eggs with thicker walls; in essence she’s just disagreed about egg laying.  Which is the better idea?  Nature answers with differential survival rates and off it goes.  Conflict improves everything, all the time.   

 We even have a lot of internal conflict and a whole lot more than we recognize.  I particularly liked Daniel Kahneman (the father of behavioral economics)’s treatment of systems 1 (knowing) and system 2 (thinking) in Thinking Fast and Slow (2013) to illustrate how imperfectly we actually go about our days.  We decide quickly, on incomplete information and with sketchy logic, and then we are overconfident in our decisions.  This is the solution evolution has given us because it works … well enough.  The human brain, he wrote, is “a machine designed for jumping to conclusions."  
Meditate once; if you’re like me, you’re a mess inside. The lessons I draw from this are all hard ones: 
  • try not to make hasty decisions
  • nobody is perfect (we’re not even very good)
  • don’t be sure
  • practice forgiveness, all around
As if all the internal confusion is not enough, we encounter many more ideas, options, and challenging opinions  when we communicate with others.  All of these compete for traction too.  In one way it’s just more inner turmoil, just amplified.  In human history this jumped once with language, again with writing and the printing press, then with the radio and telephone, and now with the internet -- we are drowning in competing ideas.  Talk about conflict.

But there is another interesting aspect to the sea of information.  We share ideas and then we sometimes alter them.  Some of these ideas are more salient than others.  Some also join together, forming philosophies, ideologies, political or economic systems, paradigms.  Ideas are much like genes, groomed by selection, teaming up for more complex solutions. Ideas satisfy all of Dawkins’ requirements.  Ideas evolve, too.  

When you get multiple people together they all have different, and sometimes conflicting, goals.  There are limited resource, so decisions have to be made. But on the basis of what, by what measure?  It’s tempting sometimes to take the easiest choice.  Or what’s best for self.  But would it be better to pursue the greatest good for all?  Yet how inclusive is “all?” And should the choice be best just now, or in some longer time frame?  Should we go for best-average goodness, or is equity a better goal? Is goodness itself measured in happiness, meaningfulness, or some other unit? 

All those are certainly important, and let’s even say that one or more goals can be agreed upon – a mission statement, if you will.  How best to reach those goals?

There will be disagreement and even outright struggle.  But it’s remarkable how many opportunities there are for cooperative, mutually beneficial, relationships; nature, even, is full of them.  It’s probably fair to say that the more complex something is, the more cooperation is required, and that many cooperative relationships are fragile.  They may break down when individuals can cheat the group for private gain -- that’s why we have rules, laws, cultural norms, and peer pressure – to stop mass defection. 

When an institution gets complicated enough it typically specializes and organizes in a layered way.  Let’s take a university for an example – lots of opinions, strong personalities, great complexity, and plenty of conflict.  There are certainly coalitions with competing perspectives, and also a whole lot of cooperation.  There are hierarchies. The basic one goes something like this: Students, faculty, program coordinator, chair, dean, provost, president.  Another one is student aide, office staff, supervisor, program director, vice president, president.  Want a new degreed program?: Faculty, college, provost, president, board, perhaps state legislature.  Student grade complaint?: professor, chair, dean, grade appeals committee.  Faculty tenure?  Department personnel committee, chair, dean, provost, president.  There are lots and lots of vertical hierarchies.

In a complex institution important decisions are made in at least two ways: within groups, and between levels of the hierarchy.  

First, within levels. There are meetings, usually in committee because there are just too many people otherwise.  Meetings which are solely to transfer information are irrelevant for decision making purposes.  Someone gives a presentation, distributes literature, people report what they’ve done ... these may be useful for other reasons, but not for deciding.   Nothing happens that couldn’t be done with a targeted announcement, or a web page. 

Question and and answer sessions, which may follow presentations, are different.  They reverse the flow of information and allow for two-way exchanges in which ideas may usefully clash.  And sometimes there are brainstorming sessions -- idea-gathering -- but as Jonah Lehrer pointed out in Imagine, brainstorm sessions where “there are no bad ideas,” are not all that useful because  there actually are bad ideas.  You have to sort through the ideas.  

The best committees have members who represent different  constituencies, will engage with issues coming before the committee, and are able and willing to contribute their perspectives and listen to others’.  Right there are five ways committees can fail.    

For running a committee it’s hard to beat Roberts Rules of Order as a beautifully fair process which insures that all voices are heard, nothing is done in a rash way, everyone has equal say, and things move on at a fair pace.  More important decisions require a higher level of agreement, there is always an opportunity to reverse or improve a solution, and minority voices are fully heard.  It’s a wonderful, surprisingly simple, system which I learned primarily by reading The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Roberts’ Rules  by Nancy Sylvester (2004). (it’s much more enjoyable than the original source).

Most committees claim to follow Robert’s Rules of Order but from my experience very few actually do beyond the sequence “a motion=>a second=>a majority vote.”   But even that skips the essential step, discussion – it’s “motion=>second=>discussion=>vote” and in that discussion there may be secondary motions relating the main motion, and the secondary ones have to get voted on first.   Sound complicated?  Just at first.  Using Sylvester’s ladder analogy, there is a set order of motions that may be made; you can skip steps going up, but can’t skip pending motions coming down.  Higher number motions must always be voted on first.  

  1. Main motion is made
  2. A motion may be made to basically kill the motion
  3. A motion may be made to amend the motion
  4. A motion may be made to amend the amendment
  5. A motion may be made to refer it to a committee
  6. A motion may be made to postpone to a certain time
  7. A motion may be made to limit or extend limits of the debate
… and so on.  There are 14 levels in a strict order.  And believe it or not, it does all make sense.
In 25 years serving on committees I’ve never heard a secondary motion, except those I’ve made, and when I do there is general confusion about whether that sort of thing is even allowed.

It’s bad enough when “Roberts” is used to ramrod a vote through a group, but it’s worse when the committee chair misunderstands his/her own designated role as facilitator, and believes that the chair wields authority as if it is his/her own committee.   Chairs should really read Roberts, or have a parliamentarian (a Roberts expert) at hand because when a chair lords it over a group a lot of good conflict is missed out on, a lot of good disagreement is lost, and decisions are therefore ill-informed.  Of course if members know the rules, this can’t happen.  But they generally don’t know them well enough to stop a rogue chair.   

Another common failure is when no one moderates discussion, in which case the more assertive or emphatic members become the authoritarians, not only monopolizing the airwaves, but possibly intimidating junior or less vocal members with their forceful opinions.  Roberts describes how every member who wants to speak can have their turn, limits the length and number of times a person can address a single topic, lets new voices jump sequence, and attempts to alternate between opinions for and against an argument.  If it’s just a free-for-all, the group may appear to agree on something, when one or two, representing themselves, have basically done all the talking.

Another form of decision making is consensus which, contrary to popular opinion, does not mean “apparent unanimity,” a general assessment of views shared.  Reaching consensus is a formal process. The goal is unanimity and the process is by lengthy discussion with special attention given to dissenting opinions.  The group attempts to improve the decision so that as many perspectives as possible are satisfied.  If unanimity is not possible in the end, the dissenters may agree to “stand aside,” letting the will of the group carry -- that would still be consensus. It’s a very careful, formal, respectful process, and like Roberts’ it’s not well understood.  The only time I saw it carried out in decades, it was followed by a quick motion=>second=>vote on the question “do we have consensus.”  There is no voting, with consensus. 

The two methods do much the same thing.  In Roberts’ terms consensus would be an extended debate, 100% agreement is required -- a single “No” vote extends the process -- and people have the right to abstain.   Roberts is more efficient, consensus is more inclusive. 

Like it or not, decisions often come down from above; the big picture must be taken into account.  So faculty tell students to write a paper and then grade them in their office.  Deans tell departments if they can hire.  Provost tells Deans about their budgets, and so on.  So regardless of how hard a committee may have worked to arrive at a decision, regardless of the process, or the quality of the decision itself – the moment it is passed to a higher level, it becomes advice.  

Since I’ve shared my opinion on how Roberts and consensus goes wrong; I’ll mention now how the hierarchies sometimes seem to fail. 

There are at least three common problems.  The first is when a level simply delegates decision making to the layer beneath it – “here, you decide and I’ll just go with your decision.”  If decisions from below are allowed to simply percolate upward, it’s the bigger picture that is missing and  things are likely to spin out of control.  Recently I heard a complaint about a reversed decision: [all these lower layers] agreed, how could [the next layer] possibly disagree with all that went before?  Well, if that’s the way it works, you only need the lowest level, right?  That would be students, let them decide how to run the University.  Whoa, they just banished tuition and fees, eliminated requirements and gave themselves A’s.  No, it’s the different views between layers that is so essential.  Levels in a hierarchy are valuable because and only if they can disagree.  

Second, reasoned decisions from below may be ignored by a higher level.  When this happens all the committee work is a waste of time and you just have an authoritarian system.  Then you’d  better cross your fingers because it’s actually very difficult to understand all the issues from 1,000 feet above ground level; you see more from up there, but much in quite low resolution.  

The third problem is when directives from above skip a step going downward or are forced through with no opportunity for pushback.  In other words, micromanagement. Not allowing a layer to reflect -- even briefly -- on the ultimate decision being passed down is unwise because there might actually be good reasons to make some more adjustments.  As before, the layers serve a purpose, here as a quick feedback loop or early warning system. Ideally, decisions go up, step by step, and they come down step by step and at each step there is an opportunity for quality control, feedback, and improvement.  

Skipping levels or forcing down decisions (especially unpopular ones) is likely to damage morale too – as in “neither your reasoning nor your opinions nor you, matter” -- which may have an impact on cooperation, later.

Usually the layers are in place for a good reason, one would hope. But fiefdoms tend to grow organically, if allowed to, spawning  more layers and sometimes with their own layers too.  A director hires two associate directors, each of which has assistants and staff.  It's a cancerous sort of growth, you might say.  This is when two important words come most into play: Accountability and Transparency.  Otherwise, you are likely to have indiscriminate growth, inefficiencies, and waste.  And when there are too many layers things more often get delayed, lost, or perverted.  Too few layers and you have partial blindness.   

Like the incestuous little fiefdoms, procedures can grow out of control with inattention, too. They may be distorted, over time, by adding steps, often with good intentions: Are the right groups consulted, are records kept, are things done in sequence?   Are the steps inclusive, do they incorporate differing views?  Are peripheral interests informed?  Are there checkpoints for abuses or error?   And sometimes in all the effort to satisfy these concerns important questions are lost:  Is it efficient? Does it even move quickly

enough to work?  Are there so many steps that things get misplaced along the way?  Fixing procedures does require the 500 foot or 1,000 foot view. 

I’ve found it helpful (and sometimes amusing) to diagram complex processes when I can finally figure them out.  Here’s a favorite ... As a chair I often have to hire adjuncts, and it’s twelve steps, with some gaps, before they can post their syllabus on the course management system. 

Things work quite well too, often, that’s for sure.  Here I’ve tried to explain why disagreement is so important to improvement and a few ways which, seems to me, it could sometimes be put to better use.  When I’m too quick to judge or criticize, too harsh or pointed, or even unclear, clouded, hypocritical, naive, self contradictory, if my reasoning isn't sound or I'm more confident about this than I should be; if I've overlooked something so important that it changes everything ... well I wouldn't be surprised.  I am, after all, a machine jumping to conclusions.  Take my thoughts for what they’re worth.  Improve them, please, and I’ll be trying to do that, too.   


  1. There's a story I've heard many times that I don't know who to attribute it to, but it goes like this: A newcomer tells her boss she wants to tear up some process or another because she doesn't understand why we do things that way. Her boss wisely tells her to come back when she understands it, and when she does, the boss will then consider the request to tear it up, if in fact she still wants to make it.

    I feel this way about lots of things in the bureaucracy.

    1. Thank you. I have discovered a simple rule that has given me, over the years, the reputation of being somewhat handy. "If you want to fix something (anything) first look at it. Very. closely." I've used it for rewiring, fixing a dishwasher, leveling a sagging floor, and rebuilding a VW engine. But it could be useful for workflow too -- if others care to listen.


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