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Unwanted Repetitive Patterns In Organizations

by Jerry L. Talley & Geoff Ball
September 2000
Over the last few years Geoff Ball and I (Jerry Talley) have come across a few samples of what we now recognize as a particular configuration or syndrome in organizations or departments. I'm writing to describe it and ask if you have run across similar cases in your practice. We've found them particularly difficult to deal with and would welcome any thoughts or suggestions.

The pattern has the following properties:

1. The system is strictly partitioned, that is, everyone belongs to one and only one subgrouping. The boundaries are hard and changing groups is tantamount to betrayal.

In one case, the new President was aligned against the remainder of the senior team. The new President was Group A and the rest of the senior team was Group B. The staff were only observers. In another, it was the agency director, in another the department chair. Typically the rest of the staff belonged to the second camp, although occasionally there was one key staff member who joined the leader in defining one of the subgroups.

2. The perceptions of the "other" are highly negative and amazingly stable, even in the face of contradictory data.

One group viewed their boss as ungrateful and overly demanding. When she threw a party for the staff as an expression of gratitude for their efforts, it was viewed as "insincere" and "manipulative". In other cases, attempts to offer some concessions were viewed as "too late" and "just trying to buy us off".

3. The definitions of the "other" have become highly moral in nature, with little hope of change.

We have heard executives refer to their staff as "lazy" or "selfish". Staffs have referred to their bosses as "self-serving", "evil", "mean-spirited". In one case, a VP confided to me that she had evidence the new President had engaged in illegal activities in his previous positions and she was considering turning the evidence over to the FBI.

Obviously these definitions of the other go beyond circumstance and situation. Each group believes they have discovered the true nature of the other and believe it to be a permanent, personality trait, with no hope of change. They dismiss the chance that it is a skill deficit or something more situational.

4. Each group feels compelled to act in ways they acknowledge to be unwise or unproductive.

Executives have lamented the necessity of their dramatic and invasive behavior; but they feel compelled to do so in order to impress a point on their recalcitrant staff. Staff groups have reported becoming more defensive, closed, and self-centered, but they feel compelled to do so in the face of an invasive and judgmental boss.

5. Each group is oblivious to how their behavior might be contributing to the undesirable behavior of the other.

Despite their admission that their behavior is less than their best, they refuse to believe they are supporting the behavior of the other. They believe the other acts as they do because of their enduring, moral deficits, and not because of some current, interactive dynamic.

6. Communications between the groups are strained, self-conscious, and multi-layered.

Meetings and retreats produce very stilted, constrained, and convoluted interaction at best. People are editing their thoughts heavily and anticipating the reaction of the other. Almost no one states their own opinions clearly and simply. People speak on behalf of others in their subgroup (or at least believe they do so).

7. Everyday events are heavily interpreted.

In most normal interactions, 99% of the events are simply experienced without conscious reflection. In these jammed up systems, even the smallest moment may become the topic of personal reflection and even group discussion. How the boss said "Hello" is reviewed and interpreted...usually in the negative. A simply conversation in the coffee room is defined as a "manipulative attempt to form an alliance" and gets passed around as new evidence of moral deficit.

8. Any attempts to work together toward a more desirable work environment are viewed with pessimism and suspicion.

Everyone believes the other behaves as they do because of deep-seated flaws, and that they are capable of deception and dishonesty. Trust is typically non-existent and optimism just as rare.

9. The consultant is viewed as someone with whom they can form an alliance and who can be their advocate to others.

Staff groups hope we will "plead their case" to someone higher up (senior executives, Boards, etc.). Executives assume we will finally "get through" to the staff who have failed to hear their perspective.

We have had 3 cases of this type in several years and found them extremely difficult and resistant. We wonder whether others see the same thing occasionally? We welcome any additional thoughts about the dynamics involved as well as any clues about where/how to intervene?

The questions we pose are the following:

  1. Have we characterized the situation fully? Are there other features you have found to be essential?
  2. Have you seen cases like this fully disintegrate? Or is there some kind of balancing mechanism or checking mechanism that prevents a meltdown?
  3. What general strategies have you found useful in cases such as this?
  4. What do you believe were the fatal, first steps that initiated this dynamic? What did the new senior person do that was so damaging? What did the "other group" do? What initial conditions were essential for launching this dynamic?


Geoff Ball -- Master Facilitator, Trainer and Conflict Manager.
Geoff Ball works in a variety of settings with a wide range of clients in situations that are often complex and involve varying numbers of people from small working groups to large conferences and public meetings. Geoff coined the phrase 'Group Memory' and was an integral part in the development of "Group Graphics," a technique that uses large wall charts to enable people to see the big picture and relationships among diverse elements. Group graphics has also been proven to be very powerful in that it allows people to feel heard and validated as the thought/ idea is being translated to the "charts." He uses a computer in conjunction with a technographer to enhance the capabilities of groups working together to produce high quality results in a condensed period of time. Geoff is a certified test administrator and interpretor of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator assessment tool which has proven to be powerful in team building. Prior to working as a facilitator, he worked with pattern recognition and data analysis, while at the Stanford Research Institute Geoff developed one of the first interactive data analysis computer systems. Geoff received his formal education at Harvard University (B.A.) and Stanford University (M.S. and Ph.D.). He has taught Cybernetics Systems at San Jose State University, and Communications/Management Skills at the University of San Francisco. He is published in technical and professional journals, and is on the board of Aikido West. "There is method and, yet, NO magic- except the magic of a group of people seeing they can accomplish more by working together than they can achieve alone."

Jerry L Talley

Jerry L. Talley has over 20 years of organizational consulting experience. Prior to that career, he was an adjunct professor at Stanford University teaching in the Sociology Department for 18 years. Coincident with that experience, he had a practice as a Marriage and Family Therapist for about ten years. Starting in the late 1970's, he moved into organizational development consulting, accumulating over 250 client engagements since that time. His clients included companies in high tech R&D, hospitality, health care, the military, manufacturing, banking and credit unions, education, publishing, mental health, city and county government, not-for-profits, and large consulting houses...and one organic grocery store.

Throughout all these experiences, the common focus was on how people think about and manage complex situations, how they attempt to solve the problems in their world, and how they form relationships with others in that effort.