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Unwanted Repetitive Patterns In Organizations

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

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… MORE >


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… MORE >

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