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:
- Have we characterized the situation fully? Are there other features you have found to be essential?
- Have you seen cases like this fully disintegrate? Or is there some kind of balancing mechanism or checking mechanism that prevents a meltdown?
- What general strategies have you found useful in cases such as this?
- 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?