One of the most frequent and entrenched forms of conflict in a large organization stems from an element of group dynamics that is largely invisible. Usually, the organization is actually composed of two different groups with different languages, cultures, values and social rules.
We’re not talking about obvious divisions within an organization, like Human Resources, Production, Logistics, Public Relations and what-have you. This goes much deeper.
Almost any group can be categorized as either goal-oriented or longevity-oriented.
Goal-oriented (GO) groups exist to accomplish a mission. Your status with the team is based entirely on your contribution to getting the job done. Hard work, intelligence, and creativity are valued and rewarded.
The ultimate goal-oriented groups are task forces or teams of specialists brought together for a single mission. Next up are tactical teams, like SWAT or special-operations groups.
Longevity-oriented (LO) groups exist to perpetuate the group. Status is based on rank and service to the group. Hard work and intelligence may be rewarded, but they are secondary to making others comfortable. Creativity almost always threatens the status quo, and is almost always discouraged in a longevity-oriented group. Social ritual, whether hazing and initiations or policy and protocol are the lifeblood of the LO group.
A pure group type is very rare. Even an extreme GO team, unless they are assembled for a single mission, will have to deal with training, logistics, and the day-to-day issues of work between missions. Even the most bureaucratic LO team still has some kind of job to do, some mission. They will also occasionally have crises that will require at least a few mission-oriented thinkers.
These types of groups can and must exist within the same organization.
Line staff, be they cops on the beat, emergency room staff, or factory workers, have a job to do: areas patrolled, patients triaged and treated, units off the production line. Failure at the job is measured by what didn’t get done. Line staff tends to be a goal-oriented group.
Administration needs to be longevity oriented. It is their responsibility to make sure the organization survives into the future. Getting the basic job (patrols, patients, product) done is important, but other things can do much more damage. Big lawsuits, lack of funding, negative media exposure can all damage the organization quickly and brutally.
The jobs that administrations must do are very much about relationships. Coordinating or making deals with other organizations and businesses, arranging a budget in a government entity or fighting for a piece of the budget in a company, handling company image.
This naturally extends to a relationship-oriented outlook within the organization as well. The policies and procedures, the meetings, the organizational charts are rituals to identify and maintain a group identity.
Most large organizations will find a profound cultural rift between management and line staff.
The two groups have wildly different ideas of what is important, different ways to communicate. Both groups think they are carrying the entire organization. Line staff know they are getting the job done, and the job is the only reason for the organization to even exist. Administrators know they are the ones keeping the big wheel turning, fending off threats the line staff isn’t even aware of.
Have you ever seen someone promoted who was terrible at the job? From the goal oriented perspective, a promotion is a reward and you reward good behavior and effectiveness on the job is how goal oriented groups define good behavior. When an ineffective worker is promoted, his former colleagues see it as a mistake in management, a sign of managements ignorance of who their good people are, or even as a direct insult to the good workers.
But the people who decided on the promotion were likely longevity oriented. In their mind, a promotion is not a reward. Their job is not to reward or punish anyway, but to balance the dynamics, to put people in the positions where they can best benefit and protect the group. They do not promote Helen because they think she was good on the factory line, they promote Helen because they think she will be good supervising the factory line and interacting with other branches of the organization.
Think about it. Many of the people who were poor at the basic job did well when they were promoted. And many of the hard workers floundered.
This is common and causes a lot of missed opportunities and grief in the business world.
There are individuals who are goal oriented and others who are relationship oriented. Though most will be happiest in a group that matches personal preference, there is extreme value in having a mix.
Goal-oriented people tend to ignore feelings and let a lot of basic relationship maintenance slide. They don’t need company picnics or set up parties to mark big transitions, like promotions and retirements. A purely goal-oriented team can feel pretty sterile. Having a few relationship-oriented members can help build relationships and keep things running smoothly during quiet times. Often a goal-oriented group runs best in crisis and can become very aggravating when things are going well.
The relationship-oriented people who run longevity-oriented groups often need a few goal-oriented people. Why? Partially to keep them on track and remind the team of the need to get the basic job done, but primarily because goal-oriented people tend to respond to crises much better. Solving the problem is usually a better strategy for dealing with disaster than maintaining relationships and protocols.
Often longevity- or goal-oriented people in a group of the other orientation do not understand and can be alienated from their own group. It does no good if you are a manager who can communicate with line staff if you have trouble understanding other managers.
It also helps for each group to have some members that can relate to the other group. Having goal-oriented people in your management team helps facilitate communication with goal-oriented teams.
These two types of groups almost always exist in the same organization. They have different values, and so sometimes they work at cross purposes. They interpret language differently— one of the highest compliments to a GO group is simply to tell them they’re doing a good job. According to “Richard Conniff’s The Ape in The Corner Office to senior administrators, “Good job” is a veiled insult, implying the person needs outside validation. The differences are that profound— an insult in one group is a compliment in the other group.
And, because the organization is a single entity, the presence of two very different groups is invisible.
The dynamic between the GO and LO levels within an organization can be extremely positive or toxic. It is a symbiosis and they need each other. Generally, the organization exists for what the line staff, GO people, do—whether that is fighting crime or producing steel. The customers come to the organization for this.
But organizations exist in a complex community of trade, public opinion, politics, reputation, and relationships. In order to thrive and survive, the organization needs specialists to work these dynamics
At their best, the two levels respect each other.
It becomes toxic when the groups become enemies, when they treat each other with contempt. The most toxic I have seen was a law enforcement agency where the line staff universally believed every member of administration had sought promotion because he or she was afraid to do the job . . . and the administration thought no one would stay on line unless the officer was too stupid to take the tests.
The British Army officer William Francis Butler once said, “The nation that will insist upon drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking by cowards.” The toxic version of the LO/GO dynamic exemplifies this.