When people discover that I am an organizational psychologist, they often tell me that they have some problem—a crazy boss, needy co-workers, departmental conflict—that would make a "great case study." They are certain that whatever they are living through at work is particularly unbelievable, idiotic or surreal. I nod and smile or offer a companionable grimace. What I do not tell them: their uniquely astonishing situation is neither unique nor astonishing. Hidden beneath problems at work is a sequence of human behavior that is all too common.
I got my first clue into this sequence while helping the partners of an accounting consulting firm create their own buy-out plan. The partners couldn't agree on what was fair. Two partners were lined up against the other two, the pairs barely speaking to one another. I talked with each partner and sat in on partner meetings, watching how they worked together. I noticed that the two original partners, college friends who had hatched the idea for the firm while trekking together, barely looked at one another. I followed the clue. Soon enough the story filled out. The two partners had been drifting apart, slowly and then abruptly as one got married. Each had recruited allies among the other partners, splintering the group. With help the original two talked about how their changed personal relationship had affected their work together. They expressed sadness and regret. Creating the buy-out plan was reasonably simple after that.
I began to notice similarities with others that had asked for my help. There were the engineers and product designers who barely spoke to one another but could not say why. I found the answer: a misunderstanding between their respective vice presidents had mushroomed into divisional conflict. There was the church board of trustees torn over firing a minister popular with the youth but not with church elders. It turned out that the problem was not the minister at all but the struggles within board itself between its older and newer members. There was the hospital that wanted me to help empower middle managers who routinely waited to be told what to do. The real story lay with the senior managers who were themselves struggling with the CEO over the authority to make decisions—struggles that were distorted and magnified through the ranks of the middle managers.
There were some very smart people in these settings. They knew how to take complex problems and figure out the right solutions. But they could not do so when it came to their own relationships. They looked at one thing that was right in front of them and couldn't see anything else. The problems they pointed to bore little relation to the real distress. Their real problems had migrated from one place to another.
Drawing on thinking from the social sciences, and my own work, I realized that there was a common story here. There is a generalized, stable and predictable sequence of events that, unless interrupted, leads harmless problems between people at work to become harmful. I call that sequence The Ostrich Effect.
The basic sequence is this:
- People have difficult moments with one another
- Something about those moments makes them anxious
- People avert their gazes from the source of their discomfort
- They fasten instead upon compelling distractions that allow them to express emotions triggered by the difficult moments—but not have to deal with those emotions or moments
- This sets in motion waves of counterfeit problems among people whose sources and solutions remain unknown
- People then work on the wrong problems, which escalate and spread to involve others.
The problems that appear on the surface are driven by this hidden sequence, occurring beneath our conscious awareness. The sequence transforms ordinary problems into unsolvable ones.
Future blog posts will focus on how this sequence leads to what we all complain about at work-the people problems, interpersonal difficulties, conflicts, poor communication, dysfunctional groups, and ineffective leadership that can make work so disturbing. In breaking down stories about work into the sequence of the Ostrich Effect, we can understand how best to interrupt that sequence, and transform harmful problems into harmless ones. Let me know what work situations are problematic for you. We will use those stories to identify a different sequence altogether, which promotes healthy relationships and productive workplaces.