Developing Rules for Relationships

Every new group must decide simultaneously how to deal with author­ity problems and how to establish workable peer relationships. Whereas authority issues derive ultimately from the necessity to deal with feelings of aggression, peer relationship and intimacy problems derive ultimately from the necessity to deal with feelings of affection, love, and sexuality. Thus, all societies develop clear sex roles, kinship systems, and rules for friendship and sexual conduct that serve to stabilize current relationships while ensur­ing procreation mechanisms and thereby the survival of the society. The rules that we learn about whether or not we can trust someone are implicit.

The specific issues of sex and procreation are most relevant in the family firm that is specifically concerned about keeping succession in the family. Then who marries whom and which children come into the firm are indeed major issues, and the emerging norms of the organiza­tion will reflect the assumptions of the founding family about succession (Beckhard and Dyer, 1983a, 1983b; Dyer, 1986). Recall Cook’s finding that the role of chief taster in the French brandy company could only pass to another male, so the succession went to a nephew instead of a daughter.

One of the most salient features of family firms is that certain levels of intimacy and trust appear to be reserved for family members, creating a kind of dual intimacy system in the organization. In Steinbergs, a large Canadian supermarket chain (to be described in greater detail in Chapter Thirteen), the founder hired another person who became virtually a part­ner in all business affairs, but the founder never allowed this person to own any voting stock. The two were very intimate in all business relations and were close friends, but ownership had a special meaning to the founder and could only be shared with blood relatives.

As Freud pointed out long ago, one of the models we bring to any new group situation is our own family model, the group in which we spent most of our early life. Thus, the rules that we learned from our own parents for deal­ing with them and with our siblings are often our initial model for dealing with authority and peer relationships in a new group. Because the different members of a new group are likely to have had widely varying experiences in their families of origin, they may start with very different models of what those relationships should be, leading to potential disagreement and con­flict over the right way to relate to others in the new group.

In work organizations, the rules governing intimacy cover a broad range of issues—what to call each other, how much personal life to share, how much emotion to display, whom to ask for help and around what issues, how open to be in communicating and whether or not sexual relation­ships with colleagues are condoned. In most organizations, the rules around intimacy will be linked to the rules around authority in that newcom­ers learn quickly with whom they can joke and with whom they must be serious, whom they can trust with intimate personal details, and how appro­priate it is to develop personal relationships with other employees, espe­cially across status or rank lines. In some cultures and some organizations, nepotism is welcomed because family members can be trusted more; in other cultures and organizations, it is forbidden because family loyalties could interfere with loyalty to the organization and could bring in less com­petent employees.

The implicit assumptions about relationships within DEC were para­doxical. On the one hand, “pushing back,” “ doing the right thing,” and “getting buy-in” made the environment extremely individualistic and com­petitive. On the other hand, the repeated shared experience of building consensus before leaping into action created a high degree of personal inti­macy. The many off-site meetings that involved roughing it together in the woods for several days at a time brought DEC groups into much more intimate contact, reflecting the family feeling previously referred to.

Teamwork at DEC was strongly espoused, but the meaning of the con­cept was unique to Digital in that being a good team player meant push­ing back even if that disrupted meetings and slowed projects down. This assumption was the opposite of the Hewlett-Packard assumption that being a good team player meant going along with where the group seemed to want to go, not objecting too much. An insightful internal organization consultant told me recently that he had finally achieved some insight into what kind of a team DEC was. He said it was “a track team or a gymnastics team in which you want the total score to be high, but you get that score by a lot of superior individual efforts.”

In Ciba-Geigy, relationships were much more aloof and formal, reflect­ing the macroculture in which Ciba-Geigy was embedded and the person­alities of most of the current leaders of the group. However, Ciba-Geigy compensated for the daily formality by annual rituals of informality through a particular event that occurred at each annual management meeting of the top forty or fifty people. One afternoon and evening of the three-day meeting were always devoted to an event that was planned by the meeting organizer but kept secret until the group actually boarded buses. The event always involved some sport at which everyone would be relatively incom­petent and would therefore look foolish in everyone else’s eyes, for exam­ple, shooting an old-style crossbow. Rank and status were thus deliberately equilibrated and a level of kidding and teasing replaced the work-a-day formality. Following the sports event, everyone went to an informal dinner at which humorous speeches were given, laced with more teasing and jibes at each other. With the consumption of much alcohol, people let their hair down and interacted in a way that would never have been possible at work. The secrecy surrounding what would be done each year heightened the emotionality associated with the event and made the ritual comparable to a group of children anticipating what their Christmas gifts would be. One could almost say that in this organization, intimacy was achieved through periodic regression rituals.

Rules regarding relationships interact powerfully with rules regarding task performance in new organizations, especially multicultural ones where the macrocultures may vary. The specific issue is whether the members of the culture believe that they must establish some level of intimacy with col­leagues before they can tackle the task effectively or whether they believe that tasks can be done immediately without concern for building relation­ships first. Stories abound of meetings where the members of one culture (usually the U.S.) wanted to get right to work while members of the other culture first wanted to “get to know each other through various informal activities” (often Asian or Latin cultures). Here again, the leadership role is to become aware of these differences and to create meetings and events where the issue can be confronted and accepted.

In summary, developing rules for how to get along with each other is critical to the functioning of any group and organization. Within a given culture such as the United States, there will be variations among organiza­tions in the degree of intimacy that is considered appropriate on and off the job. But, as in the case of rules about authority relations, if future orga­nizations will be more multicultural in terms of nations, ethnicities, and occupations, the potential for misunderstanding and offending each other will increase dramatically. Exploring these rules in a safe environment, a “cultural island” created for this purpose, will become an essential compo­nent of developing organizations.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition.

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